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Monday, December 12, 2005


Modfab On...The New World

Starring: Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, Brian F. O'Byrne, David Thewlis, Kalani Queypo, and Wes Studi
Written by Terrence Malick
Directed by Terrence Malick
PG-13 for some intense battle sequences

When approaching The New World, one would do well to remember the rules that guide writer/director Terrence Malick. Malick is a legendary filmmaker with only three films to his name in over twenty years: the marvelous Badlands, the stunning Days of Heaven, and the meandering war drama The Thin Red Line. If you've seen them, you already know the following: with Malick, it's going to be slow. It's going to be long. There's going to be only a passing interest in narrative and even less in action. Lots of beautiful nature shots. Lots of interior monologues. Lots of dreamy allegory. And did I mention it's going to run a bit long?

At 2 1/2 hours, THE NEW WORLD is a full hour shorter than The Thin Red Line...so maybe it only feels long. But if that's the case, Malick has no one but himself to blame. More accessible but less satisfying than any of his other films, this lush retelling of the Pocahontas legend is a mildly offensive disaster that, despite its stunning visual beauty, has something to tick off everyone.

Don't feel sorry for Malick, though...save it for the Native Americans, who again have to sit helpless as Hollywood uses them as exotic bait. As so many films have before, THE NEW WORLD fetishizes the Native American to the nth degree. To be fair, the story of Pocahontas (15-year-old actress Q'Orianka Kilcher) and her British lover John Smith (Colin Farrell) already does a lot of the fetishizing for them...a tale of imperialism cloaked in a rather insidious love story. But in this particular version, the 'naturals', as Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) quaintly calls them, seem to operate on three emotional speeds: unintelligible man-child, violent savage, or wise gentle giant. (As opposed to the British, who are uniformly portrayed as classist barbarians.) Dripping in facepaint, fur and feathers, the Indians of Malick's imagination appropriate Native American cultural elements only when it serves them, either for visual pizzazz or cool warpaint options.

In Malick's hands, Pocahontas' story becomes a metaphoric seduction straight out of Nabokov....Kilcher is a pubescent teenage goddess, a dark-and-lovely Lolita missing only the knowing smirk. With her deerskin two-piece slit seductively up the leg, the soft-core objectification of the two women (both Pocahontas and Kilcher) is uncomfortable. There is no overt sex in the film -- perhaps Malick knew the line he was dancing on -- but the erotic atmosphere ends up with the two leads lying horizontal in the grasslands more than once.

We are to believe, of course, that they are in love...a love that causes Pocahontas to rat out her family and tribe, all for the love of the dirty-hot John Smith. How do we know they're in love? Because the endless voiceover tells us so...a never-ending whisper consisting mainly of poetic ruminations about unrealized passion. Obtuse, irritating and obvious ("I love you, but I cannot love you"), the sophomoric clichés droning over almost every scene kill whatever spirit THE NEW WORLD might have had.

As for the performances, they begin with its A-List star, Colin Farrell, who never met a close-up he didn't like. As the rugged, military-minded Smith, Farrell alternates between kicked puppy dog and smoldering clod...an archetype best left to the Russell Crowes of the universe. Kilcher is a tabula rasa on which nothing has been written, remaining blank even as the final credits roll...her large, sad eyes speak volumes about what is missing from the script. She might be a remarkable actress in the future, but this role gives little indication of her true abilities. Peppering the landscape are a bevy of character actors -- Plummer as a crusty captain, David Thewlis and Brian F. O'Byrne as starving settlers, Wes Studi as a thoughtful (surprise) Indian chief, and Jonathan Pryce in a quick cameo as the King of England -- but none of them have much of an effect on Malick, the story, or the overall effect of the film.

And here, as Bugs Bunny might have said, is where I take a left turn at Albuquerque.

Because THE NEW WORLD has one glorious, magnificent thing going for it...not enough to rescue the film from sentimentalized racist oblivion, perhaps, but certainly enough for an Oscar nomination. It is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (A Walk in the Clouds), who captures some of the most beautiful nature images in film history. Malick has always idealized the natural world -- his films yearn for a simpler, more elemental existence encased in the idyllic splendor of the great outdoors. Lubezki is a perfect match for these sensibilities, carefully documenting the luxurious chaos of the American jungles and (in the last hour) the ridiculously over-manicured gardens of London. Recalling masterpieces like Aguirre: The Wrath of God in its visual majesty and savagery, the cinematography is a feat worthy of note and attention, shining like a diamond on top of the junk heap.

THE NEW WORLD's message is crystal clear: some things can be tamed and others can't, whether it be new countries, unruly hair, or your hot English boyfriend. I apologize for being glib, but Malick's myopic execution aside, the film cannot escape its colonialist roots. Pocahontas is a tale of the sweet-hearted savage, dressed up and primped for our leering sensual pleasure. Is THE NEW WORLD America, or a teenage girl in need of conquering? Maybe both. I wish Malick had known the difference between the two.


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