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Thursday, April 20, 2006
Love in a time of collision
'The Thin Red Line," the previous film by revered director Terrence Malick, which focused on the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, was a powerful but fatally flawed work. Malick's desire to show war in an honest, realist style often seemed at odds with his intent to also depict it on a mythic, allegorical level. These two strands never really meshed, and by the time Jim Caviezel sacrificed himself in full, arms-outstretched crucifixion pose, the point had been hammered home gracelessly.
Malick strikes a much better balance in "The New World," his new -- and no less ambitious -- film about the original myth of modern America: Pocahontas. Daughter of the chief of the Algonquin Indian tribe, Pocahontas befriended the early white settlers, particularly one Capt. John Smith, whose life she most likely saved. It was largely due to her kindness, offering food and seed, that the settlers survived their first winter -- an act of generosity the Native Americans would live to regret.
This much we know, but many historical details of the story have been lost in the mists of time. Thus, Malick has more room to take some liberties with what happened, especially between the Indian princess and the English explorer who may or may not have loved her. Aiming for a mythic level is no problem here, for this is truly a point in time -- like the founding of Rome, or the divine wind that stopped the Mongolian invasion of Japan -- where history and legend have become inextricably mixed.
In 1607, when the first English settlers arrived in North America and founded their colony in Jamestown, they triggered a process that would change the face of a continent. One culture, the indigenous one, existing symbiotically with its surroundings, would confront another, that of the settlers, who saw nature as something to be dominated and exploited -- conflicts don't get much more fundamental than this.
Malick conjures up the lush, awe-inspiring beauty of the East Coast's 17th-century forests, with glistening rivers and sun-flecked treetops, all shot with the rapturous ultra-vivid clarity and languid pace that has been his trademark since "Days of Heaven" in 1978. You can see it reflected in the eyes of the English, after months at sea, as they first glimpse this virgin land from their boats: This is beauty worth killing for. It's hard to keep from flash-forwarding in your mind's eye to four centuries later, when all this will have been replaced by Wal-Marts and SUVs. The feeling of paradise lost is inescapable.
That is, no doubt, Malick's intention, signified most clearly in shots that move between the Indians' lush, green encampment amid the trees and the settlers' muddy, disease-ridden stockade, with all the trees felled for half a mile around them. Yet beneath this grand theme lies the story of Pocahontas herself, a tragic figure who becomes lost between two cultures. It's her spiritual journey -- through heartbreak, conflict and loss -- that drives the story and delivers, like all good myths, universal truth and meaning in the end.
Malick put the weight of this role on an unknown, Q'orianka Kilcher, a half-Peruvian Indian 14-year-old who'd never acted in films before. It was a good choice. The passion and idealistic energy of her character comes across naturally. With little dialogue -- and it's mostly in voice-over, as Malick sticks with his preference for taking us inside his characters' heads -- Kilcher has to rely on her emotive power and body language, and succeeds entirely. She can suggest nobility and immaturity, impulsive love and confusion, all in the same scene.
If she looks a little too babelicious in her buckskin bikini, remember that she's in a love triangle with two of cinema's hottest hotties, Colin Farrell, as Capt. Smith, and Christian Bale, as John Rolfe, the tobacco farmer who eventually married Pocahontas. Malick milks the star-powered romance -- and a couple of thrilling battles -- to give "The New World" all the trappings of a mainstream historical drama. Make no mistake, though: Beneath its sheen, "The New World" is an art film through-and-through. The story's straight enough: We see how the settlers and Indians almost inevitably descend into conflict, and how Pocahontas saves Smith from execution after he's captured by warriors of her tribe. The two have a brief but intense connection before Smith is sent back to his settlement, with a warning that the white men must leave, or else. Pocahontas gets caught in the middle, disowned by her father, the chief, and she can only watch helplessly as war breaks out. She ends up living with the whites, though she's abandoned by Smith (the prototype of noncommittal males). A forlorn figure, she resists when Rolfe begins to court her, but eventually finds some peace with him. At least, until Smith re-appears . . .
This summary feels a lot more linear than the movie, though; Malick's storytelling style is far too oblique and impressionistic to pass for Hollywood. Lots of fleeting, almost random-seeming moments are allowed to coalesce over time, eventually forming satisfyingly solid impression. You know how you got from A to B, but everything along the way seems a dreamy blur, set to Mozart.
Malick also excels at weaving telling details into his scenes, like the way the Indians, upon first encountering the white men, sniff their new neighbors, puzzled by their smell. Or the scars visible on Smith's wrists, left from manacles when he was imprisoned for mutiny, a vivid reminder of the "civilization" he has left behind -- and of the fate that awaits him should he desert. A master of mood, Malick has his characters say as little as possible while showing as much as possible through his symphony of images.
Every scene is pregnant with visual allusions to the director's themes. Pocahontas, exiled from her people, is forced to live in a house for the first time -- the dark, dreary space is a soul-crushing contrast to her previous life running wild and free, and Malick finds the perfect camera angle to up the feeling of confinement, of walls closing in. After seeing Pocahontas laced up tightly in a dress, and forced to walk, hobbled, in heels, we hear Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer) proclaiming to his fellow settlers that "we have escaped the old world and its bondage." Indeed.
Malick, an avid ornithologist, is obviously attuned to what we have lost: a connection with the natural world that cannot be replaced. But while he may idealize aspects of the Native Americans' lifestyle, he is ultimately a realist when it comes to human nature. Pocahontas, after all, is traded to the whites by her people for a kettle, and the ferocious-looking braves are killing the outsiders (the whites) for the same reason they would be killed in the future -- turf wars.
Capt. Smith's portrait is given similar nuance. A rebellious soldier-of-fortune, and a man with great hopes for his new land, he is forced to choose between love and duty, between risk and responsibility and between a new identity or life as usual. It's a shock when he chooses the latter, but through his conflicted performance, Farrell allows us to sympathize, and that goes a long way toward erasing memories of "Alexander."
Cinema lionizes the dreamer, the risk-taker, the person like Kevin Costner in "Dances with Wolves" or Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" who can step up and take on a new life, a new adventure. We like to watch these stories precisely because so many of us are stuck in the 9-to-5 rut. Cinema is nothing if not dreams of escape. Thus, it's a shock when a movie hero, like all too many of us viewers, succumbs to routine. Kind of like Ennis in "Brokeback Mountain," actually, and you could say that "The New World" is the second film this year to preach the futility of resisting passion.
"There's something I know when I'm with you that I forget when I'm away," thinks Smith, feeling the pull of Pocahontas. For all Malick's grand themes, his films are capable of expressing simple, personal emotions in a direct way. Yet the poetry comes from the fact that such statements are internal: We're hearing the characters' thoughts, the words left unsaid, which adds a layer of poignancy to what we see on the screen. "What else is life but being with you?" thinks Smith, even as he prepares to leave the forest for Jamestown.
Smith returns to his own, and the dreaming here is left to Pocahontas, whose dreams are crushed, one by one, till she lies in the mud, completely broken in spirit. And yet from this despair comes knowledge, self-realization and the most bittersweet ending you'll see all year. Malick has worked some magic, and -- like his heroine -- is one of the few directors working today who's not afraid to dream big.