The relaxed pace instills a sense of familiarity that is the emotional key of The New World.
Director: Terrence Malick
John Smith: Colin Farrell
Nameless/Rebecca: Q'orianka Kilcher
John Rolfe: Christian Bale
Captain Newport: Christopher Plummer
Chief Powhatan: August Schellenberg
Malick builds familiarity in order to utilize contrast. There are eight dichotomies. Each dichotomy has an arc, and the film, instead of relying on a series of plot points for structure, depends on these arcs for its shape. (This type of structuring is, looking at the number of reviewers complaining, difficult to appreciate, I guess).
Dichotomy One: The Native Americans' curiosity about the English Settlers, and the English Settlers' curiosity about the Native Americans
This is the shortest arc and the first to resolve mostly because we see the Indians and Settlers interacting simultaneously. The "naturals", as they're called, circling the settlers, touching them, feeling the clothes. The English staring wide-eyed at these people, then discussing them openly as the Indians study the building of Jamestown's walls. The innocence ends when one native takes an axe (maybe not knowing better?) and a settler calmly shoots him in the back.
Dichotomy Two: The Native Americans and the Colonists
To this point, the film has yet to find an anchor. It's shuffled around Smith, Pocahontas, Captain Newtown, various naturals and various settlers, the grass, water, trees. Then Smith is sent upriver to find Chief Powhatan and talk trade. We have our focal character.
The mission is unsuccessful and Smith becomes a prisoner. He is free to roam about but can't leave. We see the substantial time he and Pocahontas spend together, the budding romance, but also Smith having friendships with the tribe's men and playing in their games. Classical music (Wagner's Vorspiel) glazes this chaste, simple, almost speechless, idyllic segment.
In his review, Jeff Strickler of the Star Tribune wrote: "This lasts for about 10 minutes, which is plenty." Note the sarcasm (his review, overall, is a negative one). A lot of people think Malick is being indulgent by showcasing this period for so long. What he's doing is acquainting us with two elements: how Pocahontas and Smith interact, and how the Native Americans live.
This first element isn't contrasted until later, but the Native American lifestyle is immediately juxtaposed with Smith's return to Jamestown (and will be crucial in contrasting future elements). The classical music cuts, there is no music, Smith enters through the gate, and we see the blasted interior: no grass, all dirt; a starving dog, people trundling in ratty clothes, with awful beards, malnourished. Three boys run up and start yelling at John, berating him with questions, demands. Their voices are shrill, harsh. They're all talking at once. The visuals and sounds are jarring after the time with the tribe. The current leader accuses Smith of treason and is yelling at him, making a huge scene; tells Smith Smith was, during his absence, tried and found guilty. Dude then draws a gun and is about to shoot Smith when someone shoots Dude. Jamestown is now leaderless. Who's nominated and voted in? Amusingly enough, Smith. How loud, ugly and needlessly dramatic the colonizers are when compared to the natives!
Dichotomy Three: Want and Duty/Career
Smith makes no preparations to abandon Jamestown and return the settlers to England as the Chief instructed Smith to do as a condition of release. Instead, Smith gathers the men to dig a well, they begin to grow corn (thanks to Pocahontas). The Chief understands the settlers are not leaving and the naturals attack Jamestown. Smith, despite the friendships he had formed with the natives and his love for Pocahontas, doesn't hesitate to defend the colony, doesn't bother to explore peaceful solutions.
In the time leading up to the battle, Governor Smith maintains a distance from the tribe's princess, stays within the walls, away from the nature he had so adored. Pocahontas eventually ends up with the colonists and she and Smith rekindle their relationship. When Newton finally returns with supplies and the second wave of settlers, he tells Smith King James wants Smith to lead an expedition to the East Indies. John, who has the woman he loves, who is living in a land he finds breathtaking and surreal, accepts and departs.
Dichotomy Four: Happiness and Grief/Pocahontas in her village and in Jamestown
The film now belongs to Pocahontas and her grief. Until Smith's departure, she has been smiling, happy, an exotic source of beauty and guilelessness (even among her own people). Now, her face is expressionless. She drifts through Jamestown, closer to a ghost than a living thing. This period doesn't last for long, but it's certainly at odds with how we've known Pocahontas (now Rebecca).
We're also seeing a difference in the day-to-day activities of Pocahontas from when she was with the tribe and now that she is in Jamestown. She has gone from combing her dad's hair and praying over campfires to wandering amongst hovels and learning to walk in heels.
Dichotomy Five: First Love and Next Love
Enter John Rolfe. Rolfe has arrived with the second wave and sets to wooing Rebecca. The advent of their relationship is shot very similarly to Smith's and Pocahontas's "10 minutes". In both cases the men are drawn to the persona of the woman, willingly modifying their own natures to be more in-line with her's. Despite the deja vu, the men differ in temperament and goals. Smith is wayward, his persona affected by situation: when he's a prisoner, he's a prisoner; when he's a soldier, he's a soldier; when living with Native Americans, he's a Native American; when Pocahontas is around to love, he loves her; when governor, he acts as a governor should; when the King calls, he answers. Rolfe, having already lost a wife, just wants to love and live happily.
This arc crescendos when Rebecca learns Smith isn't dead (as he had wanted her to think).
The "10 minutes" Strickler scoffed at is vital to understanding the impact love and loss has had on Rebecca's behavior and response toward Rolfe. Rolfe doesn't understand her hesitance; we do--it's all too identical to the first time around. (I think this is demonstrative of the fear we all have in being vulnerable again after heartbreak).
Dichotomy Six: America and England
When Rolfe and Rebecca visit England, the film's mise-en-scene is totally overhauled. We go from nature to city, from tens of people to hundreds, from outfits little better than rags to gowns and frills, from wilderness to manicured gardens, from green and brown to stone and gold and red, from huts to palaces, from fighting to survive to thriving civilization. It's like going from humanity's past to its present. But it's also going from humanity's future (the New World) to its present (the Old World). (Which blows my mind).
This arc started with the opening shot of the film. It finally begins its descent as the camera explores London and we can compare what we saw in America to what we see in England. Without all the shots of grass and trees, if Malick had only shown people with medium close-ups and close ups and only showed people, we couldn't appreciate this contrast because there'd be too little material to consider.
Dichotomy Seven: Life and Death
In the beginning scenes, John Smith is about to be executed for mutinous comments made on the passage from Europe to America. Newtown spares him and we watch the awe with which Smith initially views his second life (as he just sort of roves the strange land). This is, in a sense, a birth. And the film acts like an infant, a young child, is concerned with life's wonders and trials.
It makes sense then that the closing notes should be about death.
We have an inversion of the beginning. In the beginning, death is averted, life given, explored. In the end, Rebecca and Rolfe are about to start their new life in England. But Rebecca dies. In the closing scenes we get: the still water of the harbor in England juxtaposed against the still water of the Virginian coast. Malick then shows us shots of water flowing over rocks. The stillness before, of the English bay, is the nothingness prior to life. The Virginian coast is the stillness of death. The rushing water represents life.
So the camera explores, physically, potential death, then life, then death.
In the last few minutes, it explores, symbolically, potential life, then death, then returns to life.
Dichotomy 8: America Then and America Now
America will continue to evolve, to live. And whenever someone watches The New World they will be forced to think of America as it was in the early 1600's and compare it to their present.
The things that drive others to accuse Malick of being ostentatious and pointless, disjointed and plodding, I believe are necessary to making The New World an important film. In most cases, I think these reviewers just don't understand what's being done. And for some Malick's approach won't appeal, and that's fine. But by no means is The New World a bad movie or a failure. What we have here is a different way to communicate a story.
Did I like it:
Very much. If you're impatient, you might not like it. Or if you go in with the wrong perspective. But if you understand the film isn't structured in the typical plot-driven style, I think you will be more forgiving about its pace and seeming "incoherence".
God, and it has one of the most incredible shots. Rebecca is outside playing with her son. They're playing a form of tag/peek-a-boo out in a giant European garden. She's hiding behind a bush on the right side of the frame, her son is around the corner, on the left side of the frame. Rebecca ducks to her left and out of the shot. The young child, unable to find her, starts calling for his mother, as Rolfe begins a voice-over narrating the details of...yeah...
Kilcher was only 14 when they filmed this (born in 1990). I would never, ever, ever have guessed that. She does an incredible job.
What It's Good For:
-watching beautiful images
-people who want a new cinematic experience
-watching Kilcher act
-Christian Bale fans
-demonstrating how film can be art
-aspiring directors and screenplay writers
-not for everyone
-the lack of a dramatic climax could bother some (a lot) of people
% Character / % Actor's personality or previous roles
-Malick: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life (I would watch them in that order, because you'll note that the amount of plot devolves film to film until Tree has zero plot (but is, like The New World, structured by contrast)
-Farrell as soldier/officer-type: Tigerland, Minority Report, In BrugesThe Recruit
-Kilcher as someone in love with nature: Princess Kaiulani
-Baleas a non-superhero: The Prestige, American Psycho, 3:10 to Yuma
-Pocahontas: Disney's Pocahontas
-Early America: http://www.lehigh.edu/~ejg1/SEA/EAL-FeatureFilmComprehensive.html