As his ship of wannabe-settlers approaches Virginia one clear, late afternoon in the fall of 1607, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) sits shackled below deck. Through the cracks in the wood, he peeks up and out at the land the ship is rapidly approaching and, hands still bound together in chains, throws his head back, and laughs and laughs. Once the Englishmen hit land, the first order of business is to execute the Captain-in-chains. Smith gets as far as the gallows, before his superior, Captain Newport, steps in. Smith, apparently, is a bitch to be around – and we'll soon see plenty of that for ourselves – but he's also the only man on a ship, otherwise padded with bourgie tourists, who can offer any kind of military experience. Newport saves Smith's life, but not without a warning: "You," Newport growls (via the voice and body of the magnificent Christopher Plummer), "Are under a cloud." Smith almost winks in response.
A cloud is right, but oh, what a day to be stuck in the metaphoric rain. The New World is the most gorgeous spiritually overcast epic to hit American screens in some time. Even when he's blinding us with his trademark bursts of sunlight, and further distracting our attention with featherweight monologues that threaten irrelevance, director Terrence Malick knows we're aware of the looming shitstorm that history has waiting for his protagonists and their epoch. With that cloud hanging over the proceedings, Malick's true coup is to seesaw his story's concerns. Famine, assimilation, and I would argue, even the rape of nature are pushed down, whilst a burning star-crossed love story is pushed up. And that love story itself should be the flimsiest of things, a historical footnote of dubious accuracy (many scholars dismiss Smith's claims of a romance with the Indian princess Pocahontas, which are absent from the many monographs he wrote in the years immediately following his journey, as the barroom boasts of a megalomaniac) and very little gravity; Malick promotes it to life-or-death preponderancy. It would be cruel to call The New World a puppy-love soap opera, but it wouldn't be at all inaccurate. So let's get right down to it: The New World is the best puppy-love soap opera I've ever seen.
It's Terrence Malick's fourth film in 32 years, and certainly his best since the 70s. It's far more narratively satisfying than his last effort, 1998's The Thin Red Line, but somehow, it's also much harder to talk about, a problem bourne out in the virtual reams of text that are building on the subject that seem to all tackle the thing from different angles. At this point, nearly every major publication has sent their critic(s) out in search of The New World, and though they've all come back with gold, its none of it the same. The seemingly prevalent idea that this is a love it or hate it proposition is directly contrasted by the reviews on record: for every J. Hoberman that has no use for the thing, and every Carina Chocano who can't get enough of it, there are plenty of Manohla Dargis' and Anthony Lanes, critics who don't know quite what to do with Malick's latest, but at the very least, seem grateful for a film that affords the opportunity for such confusion. I suppose I sit somewhere in between Chocano and Lane (which, I suppose, is not a terrible place to be): I can't quite agree with the former's assertion that Malick's film is "in every sense a masterpiece", but for once, I find the latter's glib distance is frustrating. Pick a side, Lane. The natives are getting restless.
The whole film can be summed up in a series of scenes in its middle: after having spent several months in the warm idyll of the camp of the Naturals, frolicking in gaze-locked splendor with Pocahontas (played by awe-inspiring 14-year-old newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher), Smith is now back at the Jamestown settlement. The cold is coming in, the food is running out, and his men need him more than ever. One by one, they come to him with their problems and petty disputes – but all Smith can do is pace about his cabin, mooning and swooning and fingering Pocahontas' feather (that is, a souvenier from his lover's headdress, which Smith sequestered on his person before leaving her tribe). Malick has the stubborn, stunning gall to privilege personal drama over historicity: his protagonists are wrapped up in a swirl of love and longing and obsession, whilst a war over the land on which we now live rages just outside their walls.
Scene by scene, Malick breaks our image of how this story goes, replacing a narrative that any American schoolkid knows as being primarily about culture class, free trade and racism, with one about the selfish tortures of love. The first Thanksgiving? A teenage girl's ruse to see her older boyfriend. Smith's abandonment of the Jamestown colony? A desperate escape from a ruinous love that could never be. Pocahontas' marriage to tobacconist John Rolfe? A coming of age ritual, and act of closure on her first, hopelessly romantic lost love. In short, anyone who ambles into this film looking for a faithful illustration of their first grade history book will be disappointed.
Colin Farrell is perfectly cast for Malick's conception of Smith as a romantic warrior, passionate as hell but not exactly bright – the kind of older guy any 13-year-old girl would be likely to fall for, if for no other reason than that it would piss of her parents (Farrell is the only Englishman in the film to sport long rocker hair and an earring, as if to pound home this point).%uFFFD Kilcher is even better – 14 at the time of the film's shooting, she looks slightly older but by no means Farrell's age-appropriate match. The current child pornography laws suit Malick's aesthetic: John and Pokie barely get it on with the cameras around, but we get the distinct feeling that there's some kind of ecstasy going on when we're not permitted to watch. They also rarely speak; their internal monologues are telegraphed as the actors chastely caress and swim through one another's gaze. In their scenes together, her expression quakes with the tremors of first love. It's contagious – Colin Farrell, one of our most infamous celebrity cocksmiths, is reduced to a teenage boy in her presence. Even his internal monologue feels naive, clouded with the warm glow of that first hormonal rush ("They have no possessions," he marvels - a sentiment that later, when the tribe kicks him out when they get the hint that he's been pawing their favorite daughter, he'll surely regret).
The New World doesn't at all demand that you pick a camp on either side of the thin line between love and hate, but you will. After all, it's a Malick film, and the initiated - not just the 5-7 people on the planet who speak Terry Malick's language, but the many more of us who look forward to the opportunities we have, every 8-10 years or so, to re-take the immersion course - will be seeing a very different picture than those who walk in off the street on the poster's promise of Colin Farrell's biceps alone. Indeed, I've spent hours over the past couple of months, gazing atThe New World 's press materials, to draw few conclusions about what kind of picture New Line thinks it's dealing with. Judging by the lobby card, it certainlylooks like the studio planned to write this one off as a bit of reputation-building charity - like when the nouveau riche eschew actually buying (and there by caring about) art in order to give large, vague donations to museums. Word came down the wire today that New Line is releasing the 149 minutes version that the critics watched in three screens on Sunday, only to replace it with a new, shorter edit in two weeks. Expect the worst, but hope for the best.