Title: The New World
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriters: Terrence Malick
Starring: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer
There is any number of reasons why Terrence Malick is just not my bag, baby. But if I were to pick one characteristic of his films that exemplifies just what it is about them that fills me with such boredom and vaguely indifferent frustration, it would be the astonishing voiceovers he writes. When I saw and hated The Thin Red Line I thought, okay: the film is based on a supposedly unfilmable novel by the formidable James Jones (From Here to Eternity); a voiceover could at least conceptually have been an acceptable concession to the literary medium. And besides, Malick’s penchant for having his characters speak to us goes back to Days of Heaven, and you can hardly argue with that.
But this is just ridiculous. With The New World, Malick takes high-art posturing to a new, unprecedented level. As I settled down to watch the 149-minute opus, The Thin Red Line‘s various musings on war and nature oddly fresh in my mind, and the first shot was a reflective, rippling pool of water, with a soft female voice — presumably Pocahontas’ — immediately speaking to me in aphorisms, I sank very low in my seat. Little did I know just what I was in for.
Look: I understand that Malick has friends in high places, as it were. Critics, cineastes and people in the industry all like and respect him. The Thin Red Line managed a best picture nomination despite being entirely impenetrable. I get it: I don’t get it. I am willing to admit that. And as such, my negative review of The New World doesn’t mean that I don’t think you should go see it. Admitting my lack of comprehension pretty much precludes my making such a lofty claim. But what I can do is try to explain why Malick and I are not on the same wavelength. And perhaps, if you find that you are anything like me, you would do well to avoid The New World, after all.
I like to think that my mind is open to different sorts of cinematic endeavors, but by and large I go to the movies to see stories. That doesn’t mean I demand a tidy, three-act narrative (although I do love a three-act narrative) — “stories,” as I conceive of them, can take many forms, from the workmanlike progression of a genre film like Red Eye, to the simple observation of a documentary like To Be and to Have. But Malick, alas, seems disinterested in anything resembling storytelling. He wants to filter everything through his ridiculous aesthetic, in a world where we’re more interested in flora and fauna than human beings, and where we’ll buy ponderous, pseudo-philosophical narration in lieu of actual screenwriting.
It’s in service of “mood,” obviously, and of course mood is fine. And as a self-proclaimed devotee of movies, I can’t very well badmouth aesthetic. But Malick is oppressive and overbearing. There are a number of good stories in The New World, first and foremost a love story between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (the admittedly remarkable Q’Orianka Kilcher), and also, of course, inextricably intertwined with that, the remarkable story and tragedy of the New World proper. But Malick strangles, suffocates, destroys everything. Barely anything recognizable makes it through his filter. I watched Malick contort himself this way and that, trying to tell us something about man and nature, but I caught nothing of the potent, recognizable human elements that are there waiting to be put on screen. He doesn’t care. He likes trees, and reflective pools of water, and lines like “You flow through me. Like a river” spoken to us in voiceover.
After a while, you stop hearing the voiceover. It becomes white noise, just like everything else in this — to my eyes — boring, miserable, misbegotten movie. Malick comes out with a movie about once every ten years, but I think I’ve had about enough. You can keep him.