MYTH AMERICA : Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’ [7/10]

Published on: January 25th, 2006

The New World is like Malick's own The Thin Red Line crossed with Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans, with a generous dash of Herzog's Aguirre. But although it's very much worth seeing, it doesn't match up to either – and it's disappointing that so many of the techniques and approaches deployed in Line are recycled wholesale here. Has he run out of ideas? This is a relatively minor work from a man capable of greatness, but is perhaps becoming fatally hampered and narrowed by his own mystique.

Malick seems to be content to become the Kubrick of his generation: American cinema always has room for (indeed needs) a poet/painter/magus figure to give "lesser mortals" someone to revere; and also to bolster the artform's world status. Malick clearly fits the bill in many ways (reclusivity; oddball working habits; academic background). And, like Kubrick, dig a little into his earlier work and a rather more appealing huckster/shyster/hustler emerges.

The New World is to some degree a Malick film designed to bolster his own mythos – this somewhat ironic as it's an elaboration of one of America's founding myths (his version of Pocahontas's tale owes more to the Disney cartoon and Peggy Lee's song Fever than to the ascertainable "facts"). That said, despite being overlong (even at the trimmed-down 135 minute version I saw today) and ofen soporific, it's refreshingly different from everything else out there at the moment. And, this being a Malick picture, The New World has many wonderful things about it, although only one or two that are especially memorable or remarkable. 

Performance-wise, the show is unexpectedly stolen by Dutch actor Yorick Van Wageningen (with his meaty face and broad forehead, looking eerily like Matt Schulze) as Captain Argall: on this evidence, William T Vollman was spot-on in working out that the morally-ambiguous Argall is the real story here, not the much-disputed, airy-fairy romance between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the character we know as Pocahontas, but whom the film refers to by name only after she's baptised as 'Rebecca' (Q'orianka Kilcher, affecting). Malick's reticence to identify the woman known to her Powhatan tribe as Matoaka is perplexing, even distracting… or is this some kind of movie-buff smart-aleckism? After all, can it be coincidence that the most famous film to withhold the heroine's name shares its title with Matoaka's 'Christian' appellation?

MORE TO FOLLOW

(and a second viewing is reportedly desirable – I'll be on the lookout for a screening with subtitles).

Neil Young
25th/26th January, 2005

THE NEW WORLD : [7/10] : USA 2005 : Terrence MALICK : 135 mins (approx; not verified; version submitted to BBFC runs 150 minutes)
seen at Odeon cinema, Newcastle (UK), 24th January 2006 – press show