– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Grace can be a difficult thing to pin down in the Cinema, as it is often a fleeting and subjective monicker for a vague feeling we can’t quite fully describe. But maybe more so than any other canon of work, the films of Terrence Malick exude a bracing gracefulness, pictures gliding along with a ferocious understanding of historiography, re-wrapping vantage points with poetic confessions and fragmented moments of silence. Malick moves time and space as if the camera were directly tapped into nature’s subconscious, feeding sounds and vibrations of environment though a striking lens of extremes, producing organic visions of love, war, and responsibility in the process.
The New World contains all of the above traits, but more importantly it focuses Malick’s sometimes meandering gaze on a select few historical heavyweights, specifically the forlorn love between Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). Their romance seems to be America’s first, and Smith comments early on that like nature, “she weaves all things together.” But Malick unearths the regret, the sadness, and the guilt within their relationship, contrasting the elemental introduction of the pair and the tragic flaws that inevitably drive them apart.
As with The Thin Red Line, Malick opens The New World with an image of nature in transition, slowly hovering above a Virginia swamp, gusts of wind mixing with the cries of birds and crickets as buckets of rain blur the crystal reflection of the water. This is Eden, an unfathomable poetic America of high grass, endless foliage, and towering trees, of solace and peace, unsullied by the spoils of tyranny or greed. Powhatan Indians (later called “Naturals” by the English settlers) swim joyously in the ocean, dipping their hands into the water with a sublime recognition of nature’s inherent worth. Then, during one particularly entrancing low angle shot from underwater, we see the Naturals point at something in the distance. In one cut nothing will ever be the same. Imposing wood ships drift into the bay, a trio of creaking titans yearning for respite after a long hard journey across the pond. As the English settlers wash ashore they are initially awestruck, discovering the power of nature much like the audience has. But the opportunistic reality of their mission soon rears its ugly head, and Manifest Destiny ends up routing true love.
But “plot” has never been Malick’s focus. The New World extrapolates character and action from imagery and sound instead of dialogue and exposition. Characters interact with one another and nature on an instinctual level, communicating through gestures, glances, and touch – walking on thick tree branches,wading in water neck high, lounging in a lush meadow as the dew breaks. It’s all about the feeling of being in this place, exploring the outer reaches of an unknown land for the first time. Smith and Pocahontas are living a fairy tale, one far more impressionistic than the Disney version, yet completely in touch with the soul of the locale.
However, the evolution of this romantic love ends up salvaging the very European ideology that begins a fast degeneration of the pure landscape and the native people. Before Pocahontas’ fateful peace offering, Malick highlights the grotesque living conditions of the English trying to survive a place they can’t conquer, a land unwilling to bend in their favor. Puddles of urine and feces well up, small cockney urchins fend for themselves amidst a doctrine of self-serving mad men. And John Smith stands right in the middle, trying to tow the line between his extreme romantic feelings and his duty to a struggling nation-state. It’s a conflict of the heart that weighs heavily and Malick superimposes the fantasy of their short-lived togetherness with a brooding reality of disjointed loyalties to faith and country.
Malick understands that love shared cannot overwhelm the progress of discovery or the momentum of human nature over mother nature. There’s a thirst in each of us to experience a new world, and no matter if it’s physical or emotional, it inevitably becomes familiar. Pragmatism and efficiency become the villains in this film, using human souls to cut down trees, erode the earth, and burn fields for the good of the community. But at what cost do these actions decline our very understanding of discovery, of experiencing something altogether fresh? How can we spoil something this harmonic in the name of progress?
In the later sequences of The New World, after Smith departs for the north to follow his ambitions and shield his fear, while Pocahontas slowly descends into madness only to be saved by John Rolfe (Christian Bale), Malick turns away from the epic considerations of nature and illuminates the small evolutions of adaptation. Within this guise, the film reveals itself as a requiem for Pocahontas, one complicated by love for two men and a sorrow for a way of life she has lost. The incredible last glide across the water not only signifies her soul returning home but a recognition of her unflinching role as a savior.
The New World unfolds as a series of hypnotizing confessions defining America’s original melodrama, and Malick renders a graceful ode to the discovery of it all, out of fire, water, sun, eyes, and lips. Smith and the English in general experience the purity of life only to watch it slip beneath the surface, evaporate into the night sky, and become tragically overwhelmed by man’s desire for control. Could it have happened any other way?
– The Filmist’s #2 pick, Paul Thomas Anderson’s always polarizing There Will Be Blood, can be found here.