On the Far Horizon, 'The New World' Slowly Emerges

Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) protects John Smith (Colin Farrell) in Terrence Malick's romantic history.
Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) protects John Smith (Colin Farrell) in Terrence Malick's romantic history. (By Merie Wallace -- New Line Productions)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Look at the savages! What beasts! Snarly, smelly, infested with fleas and lice, their skins marred by hideous markings, their visages warlike, their language a strange clottage of war whoops and gurgles.

And those are the British!

That's the initial point of view in Terrence Malick's "The New World," an attempt to rescue the founding of Jamestown and the myth of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas in 1607 from the swamp of kitsch into which it has sunk. But at first it seems almost like something that might be named "Bambi vs. the Flying Saucers" set in a tidewater theme park called Benevolent Nature, with the forest creatures -- graceful, beautiful, magical -- contemplating the clanking, stumbling invaders who've beamed down from Olde Englande courtesy of strangely festooned motherships abob on the estuaries of the Chesapeake.

Malick almost has some fun chronicling this first encounter of the close kind. The Native Americans are at first amused by the outsiders: They've never seen so much hair, smelled such vile vapors (the boys have been cramped into a vessel little bigger than a Volvo for about eight months) and can make no sense of metal helmets, swords, high-heeled shoes and, most of all, white faces. They're like curious fawns, touching and giggling.

But soon it dawns on them that the furry boys and their prim, pale womenfolk mean to stay. That's evident as Jamestown itself arises and in no short period of time has come to replicate the glories of a Liverpool slum, complete to slatternly, ill-built buildings, puddles of fetid water, mud, pigs, chickens, scraps of junk wood and a surrealist agriculture dedicated to exotic, doomed grains.

And then that contagion of human socialization intrudes, the contagion of politics. Malick cuts quickly between the various factions on each side of the Lincoln Log fence the settlers erect: In the Powhatan councils it is debated whether to kill or ignore the intruders; in the English, it is debated whether to kill or ignore the Indians.

Gradually, personalities emerge. Rima the Bird Girl there, the barefoot Indian lass with Suzy Parker's delicate toes pedicured cute as baby bunnies, she's Pocahontas. That particularly gnarly brute, hairy as a bear and smelly as an outhouse in July, that's John Smith. The actors are Peruvian Indian-Swiss teenager Q'orianka Kilcher and Irish heartthrob Colin Farrell. Each looks the part: She's dark, swift, beautiful, and he's got the strength and thews of a man who was a mercenary and had seen combat all over Europe and the Middle East. Is it love at first sight?

Well . . . hard to say. It's something at first sight, but why should we be hasty when the director is never hasty. That's because Malick is of the introspective sort. He's the only man in history who could make a boring movie about the battle of Guadalcanal ("The Thin Red Line") and turn a Charles Starkweather-like mad dog's kill spree into a philosophic inquiry ("Badlands.") Here his distance from emotional engagement keeps the players far away, as if through the wrong lens of a telescope; thus it's hard to feel much for them or their turmoil, if it's turmoil at all they're feeling.

It's certainly not lust: The movie is almost sexless, and the play between the two romantic leads (and later with a third cast member, Christian Bale, as Pochahontas's eventual hubbie, John Rolfe) is all frisky necking and snuggling. It has a kind of 18th-century innocence, almost like Fragonard's "The Swing," the 1767 painting that encapsulates romantic purity. (Frankly, I much preferred the scalawag-horndog John Smith of John Barth's fabulous novel of that time and place and the devil plant tobacco, "The Sot-Weed Factor.")

Malick is far more interested in states of nature, which he expresses with extremely slow camera movement that notes with stunning precision how nature arranges bushes as opposed to how man arranges bushes. Really, is it that big a deal? Especially, when it turns out he favors nature over man. You see this choice running through the film. The forests of Tidewater country are lush, enchanting, inviting; in England, they've been reduced to mazes, cruelly cut into box hedges, perverted into something monstrous and different. It's so easy .

Likewise the buildings of the two races: The interior of a tribal lodge is filmed as if it's a cathedral bathed in radiant light through a stained-glass window, while the interior of the English hutches at Jamestown are threadbare, not merely decoratively but by metaphorical extension, spiritually impoverished. Again: easy .

The surprise -- and the discordance -- arises from the disconnect between the design of the film and the design of the characters. He could have settled for easy demonics of the Kevin Costner school: Indians saintly, whites monstrous. The artist in him -- or possibly the adult in him -- knows it's never that simple, and fortunately the actors are adept enough to suggest, however wispily, some ambiguities of character. Colin Farrell even makes you forget that he is Colin Farrell.

Thus the movie's more interesting drama is the nuances of personality in the mesh of myth. It's all here, all the highlights of the Pocahontas magical mystery tour: how she intercedes to keep the captain's head from getting pulped by boys who look like refugees from a Goth band; how the two -- he's in his thirties, she's 13 (the actress is 15) -- fall in love and communicate; how, in winter's icy grip, she leads her people on a relief mission out of sympathy for the starving white hairy ones; how she hides corn kernels by which the settlers finally learn to tease a life from the earth; how she is banished by her father, then kidnapped by the whites, then falls in love and marries the Englishman Rolfe (for whom we may issue thanks, as he first domesticated for home use the sot weed of the Barth book, thus sparing so many of us of a boring old age); and how, finally, she goes off to England to meet the king.

It was here that it dawned on me, and it will dawn on you, that the thing was actually conceived of as a romantic triangle. In Merry Olde Englande, she settles into a country squiress's life and soon bears the country squire a boy child. But then the thunderingly romantic, dark, hairy soldier/explorer/writer/tattooed bad boy returns. Will she stay or will she go? Oh, that's what this movie is about. Why didn't you say so earlier?

There are other annoyances. Like every movie Malick has ever made -- not that he's made that many, having taken a 20-year vacation between "Badlands" and "The Thin Red Line" -- this one was edited way down from a longer version. That's beginning to feel like a self-inflicted pattern: It lets him take credit for what might have been but not responsibility for what is. In this case, even in the past few weeks 16 minutes have come out of the initial version screened for critics (it still moves too slowly). And the original cast announcement (available on the Internet Movie Database) lists a variety of prominent performers -- Jonathan Pryce, Noah Taylor and Ben Chaplin -- who are now nowhere to be seen. Two great Native American actors -- Wes Studi and August Schellenberg -- are visible but almost without lines. And that might explain another silliness: The movie has a bloody battle sequence in which it appears that dozens of the already short-handed colonists are killed, but after the fighting, the same number of Englishmen and Indians are running about.

"The New World" is stately almost to the point of being static and thus has trouble finding a central story around which to arrange itself; it's not quite the thin dead line, but it's close.

The New World (135 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual suggestion and violence.

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