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The New World

The New World is just like the old world, only with less dialog.
The new historic romantic epic is so quiet, in fact, that you may feel you’ve wandered into an Ingmar Bergman film or one of those stark Calvin Kline commercials of the 1980s. Two hours into this emotional soup, watching Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) meander through an English estate as though she had all the time in the world, I felt like screaming, “Come on, slacker. I paid for this movie – do something!”
When characters do express themselves, more often than not it’s through voice-overs that sound much deeper than they really are, sort of like the stream-of-consciousness you hear during poetry open mic night. “Oh mother, wind, goddess… love is a hand like wind rushing between trees..”
The New World is absolutely full of ellipses and enigmatic gestures; riddled with pregnant pauses and naturalistic gimmicks that lull the thinking part of your brain to sleep. The movie works best on the level of a deep coma, where it’s possible to overlook its naiveté and hackneyed worldview.   
The film begins in rebirth. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is brought ashore in chains after having been accused of mutiny, but his life is spared, and the ragtag band begins to dig into their surroundings. Although the Jamestown settlement feels doomed, there’s also a real sense of potential in this unspoiled land. 
The settlers are approached by the native population after they’ve built their camp. Although Smith feels compelled to describe them in a way usually reserved for idiot children and characters in Disney films in his melodramatic voice-over, the initial meetings between the two peoples feels genuine.
The natives are suspicious and curious about the Europeans. The language barrier is absolute, but the two people flirt with one another, playing childish games and spying on one another. The uneasy peace is eventually broken when a series of petty crimes escalate and lead to the death of a native.
The timing couldn’t be worse. The settlement’s supplies have begun to go bad and with winter approaching the Susan Constant (the expedition’s lead ship) returns to the old world for fresh provisions. Smith is elected to search the land to the north for the tribal king, restore peace between the peoples and begin a trade agreement. 
Proving he’s the right man for the job, Smith lets his captive guide get loose, then gets lost in a swamp, is ambushed and is brought into the city as a hostage. The Grand Poobah, Chieftain Powhatan (August Schellenberg), decides to spare Smith after his beautiful daughter Pocahontas goes to bat for him.      
Smith and Pocahontas’ love affair begins with nice touches. Smith teaches her English by mapping out his body for her and there’s a child-like, innocent quality to their relationship. They communicate so completely through gestures that it almost makes you wonder why we talk at all when we can say so much with our eyes.   
From here it’s all down hill.
Filmmaker Terrence Malick attempts to sustain this meaningful silence throughout the film, but the movie descends into allegory without realistic dialog. It becomes tiring to interpret the significance of characters scrubbing their hands, batting at insects, or drooling over their words. It’s like living through someone else’s bad acid trip.
Worse, Malick’s natural tendency is to present the world in binaries – Indians = nature = child-like vs. Englishmen = civilization = decadence – which tends to present the native culture as somehow precious and innocent, even when history forces us to admit that they were as flawed as any other people.
Turning Pocahontas into a fairy queen of dreams does a disservice to the extraordinary, real-life person she was and presenting the Jamestown settlement as a collection of lice-ridden losers seems unfairly revisionist. It’s easy to see that much of Smith and Pocahontas’ romance was narcissistic projection, and Malick suggests this possibility as well, but the filmmaker is just as guilty of using others to project his own dreams onto.
If he wanted to write a story of paradise lost he should have started from scratch.

 

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