Terrence Malick has made only four movies in the last thirty years. If he never made another one, his contribution to cinema would still be enormous. His camera drifts through the world, seeing it as a membrane of flowing surfaces, behind which is what some would call God, others spirit, others energy. His characters wade to the waist in wheat, or in water, or grass; it is how Malick makes visible the unseen. When they harm each other, and fall, and break the membrane, they are absorbed into peaceful silence.
Malick’s new film, The New World , is about the founding of Jamestown in 1607 Virginia, and the clash of cultures between the English and the Native Americans. A fourteen-year-old Indian princess, Pocahontas, played by Q’Orianka Kilcher, lays hands on her environment: water, grass, sunlight, an ox, the hand of her brother, the chest of her lover. She moves through nature as if dancing with it.
When Captain John Smith, the dark and handsome Colin Farrell, first sees her, she is playing in the tall grass; she vanishes back into it like smoke. Smith thinks she and her people are "as timid as wild deer". But the Indians are not timid; they are just curious about and wary of the metal-clad aliens from giant ships with the strange behavior. Later, when he comes to admire them, Smith will say, "They are gentle, loving, faithful – envy, greed, slander, jealousy, or sense of possession do not exist."
The natives are contrasted with the English, who immediately set about cutting down all the trees within a mile of their landing to build a fortress. Inside, the grass is beaten down to lifeless mud. They build houses in there, walls within walls. They see nature as an enemy. It is the way they have been taught.
When the food runs out and fever ravages the settlers, there is a deadly confrontation, and the English "lose the favor of the naturals". Captain Smith is given an "opportunity to repair his reputation" (he had been a prisoner for incitement), and a few men, and is sent to make contact with a king who, they have heard, lives just up the river. On the trip, as in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, his men aren’t so much attacked and killed by Indians as they are swallowed by nature.
Pocahontas throws herself on Smith and saves his life. They are both transformed and bound together by the embrace. They are now between worlds; Smith thinks, "There is only this, the rest is unreal." We hear their whispered thoughts – hopes, self-doubts, always searching – like the rustle of grass in the breeze.
Many of the tools of film criticism are too blunt for The New World . Is Kilcher a bad actress? That’s immaterial; Malick uses her for her beauty, and to register pure sadness and joy. The film is a poetic experience, and should not be dissected. When it meanders, gathering up smoke and skin, shaping them like music, trusting you will follow, some will be bored. But as Theodore Sturgeon wrote, "There is only one sense: the sense of touch." It’s a very rare film that understands this.
The New World is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.