Only Terrence Malick could get away with this. The legend of Malick is one I partially understand, but the holier-than-thou critical reputation he seems to revel in is completely overblown. The man has directed five films since 1969 but really made a name for himself with Badlands (1973) and Days Of Heaven (1978), two very solid films. He returned in 1998 with the excruciatingly long (170 minutes) and melodramatic The Thin Red Line, but at least that film had a nice structure and showed some real insight into the psyche of war soldiers. With The New World, Malick appears to have whittled his mission to a singular goal: boredom to the point of torture.
The story will be familiar to anyone who saw the Disney version of Pocahontas. The film opens in Virginia, circa 1607, as English settlers are just arriving in what would later become Jamestown. The land is currently occupied by Native Americans (referred to as “naturals” by the Brits) and they are understandably fearful of the new arrivals. One of them is John Smith (Farrell, doing his best to look like ex-Creed singer Scott Stapp), a man who spent most of the boat ride in confinement for “mutinous remarks.” While wandering in the fields one day he spots Pocahontas (Kilcher – although she is never referred to by that name) and they seem to instantly fall in love. Smith spends an extended amount of time with the Natives and deals with the complications of their relationship and co-existence of the two groups of people. From here the film switches gears and follows the story of Pocahontas as she travels and eventually becomes involved with John Rolfe (Bale), a wealthy tobacco trader.
Much has been made about the seventeen minutes of cuts that Malick has voluntarily made to the film, which apparently included some controversial pubescent female nudity. All I can say is that it’s not enough. I think we could have dispensed with the three or four minutes dedicated to nothing more than shots of flowing water, barren fields, and tall trees. There is such a thing as leisurely pacing a film (see the recent Brokeback Mountain), but here Malick is merciless and completely runs an already uninteresting film deeper into the ground.
Perhaps just as perplexing is the decision to throw the John Smith character, which we are led to believe is the centerpiece of the story, completely out of the story – over an hour and a half into it. Granted, Farrell seems completely disinterested and barely even has a speaking role until about forty-five minutes in, but to show him the door for the last act and then close out the film with an empty sequence involving him and Pocahontas is absurd. Bale’s character is just as boring, and like Smith, all he really does is speak in inner monologue via constant voice over.
The performances are frustrating, mainly due to the clear disinterest conveyed by both Farrell and Bale. I suppose phoned-in period performances look better by default than phoned-in modern performances, but either way a male character to truly care about is absent. Newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher is perfectly cast as the young and alluring Pocahontas, imparting depth and feeling to the character. As for you Christopher Plummer fans, he has maybe five minutes of screen time and looks positively bewildered for every second of it.
The beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is the only other bright spot in this snooze fest. Lubezki captures striking and unique terrain in quite memorable fashion, but unfortunately it will be ultimately lost in the plethora of problems evident in the film. The New World is so long and tedious that it practically begs to be mocked by teenagers who think making hand puppets in front of the projector is pure entertainment. On second thought, one may be wishing for some type of juvenile amusement while trying to stomach this overblown, bombastically long piece of celluloid.
Studio: New Line Cinema
Length: 150 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some intense battle sequences.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2005 (Limited) / January 20, 2006 (Wide)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Cast: Colin Farrell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi