Friday, September 12, 2008
Terrence Malick and The New World
Terrence Malick is a film director unlike any other. A former Rhodes scholar who got a philosophy degree from Harvard, a subject he later taught at MIT, Malick worked as a script doctor (someone who gets paid to do uncredited rewrites of scripts) before making his first movie at age 30 with 1973's Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a couple who go on a killing spree through the midwest. It was lauded by critics as a masterpiece, and Malick followed it up with 1978's Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard in a love triangle set against the backdrop of a poetically gorgeous Texas wheat farm. Also hailed as a masterpiece, Malick's next project was highly anticipated, but he stepped away from the film business for 20 years before returning with 1998's WWII epic The Thin Red Line, which was hailed again as a masterpiece and garnered Malick Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director (the movie itself was nominated for 5 other awards, including Best Picture). He thankfully didn't wait another 20 years before giving us 2005's The New World, a retelling of the story of Pocahontas.
The Indians watch apprehensively from the shoreline as huge ships approach from the ocean, bringing with them the English settlers. As they first make contact with each other, the Indians approach quizzically, fascinated by the English weapons and armor. The two sides get along fine for a while, and when Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) returns to England to bring back more ships, he leaves in charge Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell). Things turn sour quickly between the settlers and the "naturals" (as the English call them), and when out on an exploratory mission, Smith is captured by a group of Indians and is about to be executed before the Chief's daughter Pocahontas throws herself on top of Smith and pleads for his life. The story proceeds from there with a terrific mix of legend and history, the most legendary of which is an achingly beautiful romance between Smith and Pocahontas, for which there is no historical basis. The story is also told with Malick's trademark narration (by both Smith and Pocahontas), and his unconventional, and some say meandering, storytelling technique.
Pocahontas is played by newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher in a performance of startling complexity. She's fascinated by these new people, and wants to learn about them and their ways, as well as their language. There's a wonderful sequence where Kilcher and Farrell teach each other their different words for lips, eyes, ears, sky, wind, etc. and both actors truly shine. Farrell shows again here (as he did earlier this year in In Bruges) that he's a tremendous actor when given the right material. You can feel his disgust and contempt for the English when he returns from living harmoniously with the Indians, whom he came to love and respect and deeply admire, and Farrell does it without words. Christian Bale is quietly effective in the role of John Rolfe, the man Pocahontas would eventually marry. But Kilcher is the real story here, as she was robbed of every award that didn't go to her (and no major awards did). She was only 14 at the time of filming, but that's not why her performance is incredible, she shows such a depth of characterization, such intense and confused emotions, and ultimately plays an understanding of those emotions to an extent that few actors can. It is one of the great performances of this decade, and reason enough to see this movie.
Another reason to see this movie is for the incredible cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who recently received his 4th Oscar nomination for his groundbreaking work on Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men). Lubezki and Malick create such visual poetry in every facet of the movie, whether it be the innocent love scenes between Farrell and Kilcher, the chaos of the battles between the English and the Indians, or just simple scenes of Kilcher walking through the tall grass. There is not a frame of this movie that isn't absolutely gorgeous.
So having now seen all 4 of Malick's movies, I have to say that I'm quite a fan. I think Days of Heaven is his best movie, with that tragic love story. It also has his best images, as it could be watched without sound and simply regarded as a moving painting, and it would still work. Then followed closely by The New World, with its gorgeously bittersweet love story, and because of its unforgettable imagery. I liked Badlands a lot, both Sheen and Spacek were terrific, but it's not quite on the level of the other two. The Thin Red Line I find to be his weakest effort, though not without a lot of great images (detecting a theme there). I just felt that Malick focused more on giving his characters philosophies to spout, rather than creating characters who would then talk philosophically. However, I believe I'm in the significant minority on that one. If I were recommending which movie for a Malick virgin to start with, I would say start with Badlands as it's his most accessible movie, and then work forward chronologically.