The New World: A Change is Gonna Come

“We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning. Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all, and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true common wealth, hard work and self reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to wreck us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor.” — John Smith, paddling upriver in the New World.

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Colin Ferrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale

The first time I saw Terrence Malick’s The New World, I denied it my full attention.  I had my computer in my lap, watching the film with one eye.

Then, about a half hour into the film, I felt myself choke up, out of nowhere. It was affecting me, even at a distance, for reasons I didn’t understand. From then, it held me. So much so that when it was over, I sat down and watched it again. I can’t remember the last time I did that with a DVD.

The New World is like no movie I’ve ever seen, I think. Not even like Malick’s own The Thin Red Line. It’s a towering achievement, a powerful experience, one that is felt on an almost unconscious level.  The film is one of the most gorgeous ever shot, delivering images of such concentrated beauty that they’ll take your breath away.

It’s not an easy film to decode and in reading about it, I’ve discovered that it has as many skeptics as devotees. Loving it is not a universal experience—though those who praise it do so with a passion I have rarely observed with regard to any film. Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic I follow, created an entire blog, The House Next Door, as a means to respond to attacks on the film.

We live in an overly pragmatic and cynical age, one in which it’s much easier to mock greatness than work for it. We’ve convinced ourselves that all standards are subjective and that culture is something to be chopped up and reformatted. New ideas are shunned in favor of recycled ones, normally shot through with a near-lethal dose of irony. Malick doesn’t compromise his vision. How often do you run into something like that in a commercial context? (Read “Art in the Age of Myopia” here.)

The first section of the film is its greatest, as the English explorers and the indigenous Algonquins come across each other, all transposed against shots of Virginia as it was—and in parts still is. It’s as if we need to be reminded how remarkable this land is; we can’t see it for ourselves. Suffused through all of this part is a staggering sense of wonder, of awe. A sense we have lost.

Malick bombards the senses, particularly the ear. The soundtrack, filled with the wind blowing and the sounds of birds and insects is as lifelike as you’ll ever hear. His use of classical music is inspiring. I found that three moments in the film where I was most overcome emotionally matched up directly with Malick’s use of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” as a cue. That piece conveys a sense of largeness and communion. For that reason, the film is more like 2001 and Apocalypse Now than Dance with Wolves, relying more on light, sound and scene as dialogue and story.

It is deeply immersive. And just as puzzling, as those films.

Make no mistake, the film is also slow, even ponderous at times, particularly near the end, before the final act in England ends the story on a soaring note. But as a whole, it stays with you and even haunts you.

I could go on, but I won’t. For one reason, I don’t think I have the vocabulary for it. I’ll say this, probably the most pleasant surprise of the film in terms of its narrative is that there are no easy stereotypes. This isn’t just a retelling of the spoliation of the Garden of Eden. It’s much more complex than than. The English aren’t barbarian conquerors and while the Native Americans come off better by comparison, it’s clear that they are capable of their own savagery.

In the end, though, I do believe it’s a meditation on loss of innocence—and it strikes me that is why the film is so profoundly moving. The world, as it exists in that moment when the colonists and the natives meet, will never be that way again after that. The final scenes between Colin Ferrell’s John Smith and Q’orianka Kilcher’s “Pocohantas” (she is never called that in the film) are sad and wistful, because both know there is no going back. They have been altered, both by their own actions and the irrevocable flow of history, marked by the clear streams of running water Malick shows with his final, thrilling shots.  How often  have we wanted to return to what we considered to be a purer, less adulterated moment in time? Malick tells us it’s impossible—that history is a rushing force too powerful to stop–and yet leaves room at the end for optimism, of the hope of something eternal that lies ahead.

The quote from the film at the start of this passage for me the key. When confronted with our own new worlds, how often do we hope to use that as a basis for a new beginning, only to fall victim to our inevitable natures?  The hopes of John Smith, of course, never came to pass in America, as English society with all its sophistication and its cruelty was exported here. As we have learned (again) from our own politics, talk of change is cheap, both on a national scale and in our own lives. And when that change does come, as in the case of Pocohantas, it’s not always welcome.


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