There were few more tantalizing film prospects this year than a new world (forget the New World) conceived and manifested by Terrence Malick. Nothing could match expectations — I essentially imagined stepping through the screen and taking up residence in some extinct species of tall verdant grasses. But the real New World presents challenges. where Badlands and the Thin Red Line rendered their tired models (couple on the run, war movie) irrelevant, the New World treads on treacherous ground mapped long before cinema: colonizing an exotic, mystical virgin land and woman, treated as one. the noble profile of Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas could be minted on a coin, and the then-14-year-old actor must bravely bear a tremendous burden as the visual and emotional focus of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the film itself. and their love story involves a shapeless stretch of mucking about in an edenic forest.
Yet these dubious undertones fall to a distant murmur before a confident, consistent visual philosophy that suggests a thrillingly alive, shifting consciousness. the spiritually stirring nature photography integrates, instead of spotlights, people in its spaces. Malick liberates the viewer from the atomism of an accumulating narrative and cuts shots mid-motion the better to enfold you.
But the anxiously expectant and non-Malickian alike will have to recognize the film’s ground rules: it requires, to a certain extent, dispensing with expectations of a satisfying story, a romantic arc, or some grand exegesis of a monumental meeting of civilizations. But try giving yourself over from the start — a series of earth’s-eye shots. the New World will both enthrall and disappoint you, Malick’s least compromising film yet.
Opens December 25