Criterion Prediction #21: The New World, by Alexander Miller
Title: The New World
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, August Schellenberg, and Wes Studi
Synopsis: The establishment of the Jonestown settlement and the relationship between a young Powhatan girl named Pocahontas and an English captain known as John Smith is realized like no other by Terrence Malick. While their prospective colony seems promising the English settlers fall victim to the ensuing harsh elements and their inability to maintain peaceful relations with the natives as well each other. Survival looks unlikely; when Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) returns to England to gather more supplies while John Smith (Colin Farrell) leads a small expedition upriver to find natives to trade with only to be captured by the Powhatan’s. Nearing execution Smith’s life is saved by the intervention of chief’s daughter Pocahontas. Romance ensues between Smith and Pocahontas. Fascinated by their different customs, the unlikely couple fall in love and Smith endears himself to the other Powhatans as well. Meanwhile, back at the Jonestown encampment, the standard of living have only gotten worse; desperation runs rampant until a rescue mission lead by Pocahontas, who arrives food and supplies to the settlers. However, this results in Pocahontas’ exile and an ensuing battle between the Powhatans and the Jamestown settlers. Afterward, Smith returns to England and tells his fellow Englishmen to inform Pocahontas that he has died. Believing Smith to be dead, Pocahontas falls into a deep depression and is comforted by another advantageous English tobacco farmer, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who then leaves the new world to travel to England.
Critique: American history told by Terrence Malick might be the most historically faithful and undoubtedly the most beautiful. Though the expected creative liberties are taken, Malick’s depiction of the Jamestown encampment is devoid of frills and romanticized embellishment; the solid quality of realism is juxtaposed with, Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography accentuating the atmosphere of the period with a transcendental hypnotism we commonly associate with their work. Terence Malick’s third film in thirty years stands as one of his best, and in my opinion, a singular cinematic achievement that boasts the power of a director at the peak of his powers as a visual artist. In some ways, I feel like The Thin Red Line, and The New World are his strongest work; they employ the weightless, dreamlike whimsy Malick favors, but they both follow a narrative (though loose) structure with developed characters and a degree of dramatic gravitas.
The rift in Malick’s career could be another article in itself but it can’t go unmentioned that The New World marks a pivotal transformation in the director’s work. After this film, his style veered towards more disjointed (if visually stimulating) existential portraits of thinly drawn characters and narratives. Technically dazzling, if at times alienating, his growing body of work pleases some and leaves others wanting. The New World, however, features a narrative structure that is accessible while brimming with Malick’s recurring motifs – dissonant voiceovers, visceral montage editing, and philosophizing the natural world and man’s relation to it. The result is a historical epic that transports an extensive breadth of emotional and historical context; conveying an expanse of discovery and existential depth in a confusing and incomprehensible world that changes faster than we can understand.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Some predictions are based on the inevitable; for instance, if Wes Anderson came out with a new film we’d only have to count the time until it received a spine number. Other directors have the same privilege, with prominent directors like Stanley Kubrick, and so many of his films in the collection the prospect of something like Dr. Strangelove entering the collection doesn’t seem far off at all. With Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and now Badlands in the collection the next logical step is to include the ambitious if critically misunderstood 2005 film The New World. And if I’m interpreting this year Criterion Newsletter correctly the large ship could very well imply the arrival of Malick’s 2005 film. Regardless of the wacky drawing, The New World is a perfect fit for the collection and it would also serve as the best representation of the director’s later era as a filmmaker. An update of the box art would be something to look forward too, seeing as the New Line/Warner Blu-Ray cover makes Malick’s movie look like a historical action film, likely trying to capitalize off of other films like Alexander or Troy – both released around the same time as The New World. Though their current Blu-Ray looks great, the usual lack of bonus features doesn’t come as a surprise, all the more reason for a Criterion release. Status of the director doesn’t always make the argument for a good Criterion release; does every Terrence Malick film deserve a spine number? Not in my opinion, but if we are allowed one more film from Malick to get the Criterion treatment The New World is, in my opinion, the most deserving.