Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer
My dad dragged me to see The Thin Red Line when I was a sophomore in high school. Saving Private Ryan had just come out and was receiving rave reviews, but The Thin Red Line was difficult in comparison. So many characters seemed to be existing as opposed to acting and the storyline was lacking the type of plot that drives so many war films. Needless to say, I wasn’t overly impressed.
But why? Was I too young to appreciate it? Was it just not that good? I struggled with such concerns for years until I reviewed this film earlier this year by myself. I had missed something. In my youth I was unable to grasp the swagger of an expert director, especially since that swagger is rooted in the subdued.
Yes, The Thin Red Line is a war movie, but Terrence Malick, the director, is basically the bizarro-Spielberg. Where Spielberg will direct a new film every year or even sooner, The Thin Red Line represented only Malick’s third attempt at a feature length film. Yet both are considered auteurs of sorts. Spielberg is undoubtedly the Stephen King of film, never stopping for a moment to actually develop his work and just hoping against hope that historical sentiment combined with his undeniable talents will produce another Jaws or ET. And it’s true that he has made some gorgeous films. The ones I already mentioned, along with Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones I and II, and a handful of others, are all part of the canon of Western cinema, to be sure. Still, I know I speak for a lot of fans when I say that I wish he would just slow…the…fuck…down. Did he have to make all three Indiana Jones movies? Was a Jurassic Park sequel really necessary? Will The Terminal’s master copies ever be jettisoned into outer space as they deserve?
Nearly his polar opposite, like I said before, Malick is content to take his time with his work and make sure everything emerges as planned. He’s a notorious editor and re-editor. He painstakingly assembles casts, crew, sets, etc. Anyone who has seen Badlands or Days of Heaven can tell you that a Malick film is never popcorn fluff or even “fun” in the traditional sense. If Spielberg : King then I would put my English major cred on the line and say Malick : James Joyce. And if my last sentence’s assertion is remotely correct, then allow me to also put the subject of this piece up against Finnegan’s Wake, a novel that about ten people have ever completed, mostly because it is written in extreme stream of consciousness and combines about 50 languages into a giant mishmash of pain and suffering. The New World isn’t exactly as hard to take as Finnegan’s Wake, but its artistry, scope, and devices function in nearly identical ways.
The New World is not an “actor’s showcase” like Saving Private Ryan. There are no moments of mega-catharsis ala Tom Hanks imploring Private Ryan to "use this." It’s a team effort. It is quite possibly the only film I’ve ever seen that uses voiceover for a purpose other than narration. Colin Farrell, playing Captain John Smith to a T, barely utters a word the entire film. His performance is surreal. Likewise is the work of David Thewlis, Christopher Plummer, and Christian Bale (does he DO bad performances?) But for anyone that’s seen The New World, you know that the real story here, as far as actors go, is newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher in the role of Pocahontas.
There’s a moment in the film where John Smith narrates in the stream of consciousness-mode incorporated throughout about Pocahontas’ beauty and grace. He gushes and says:
All the children of the king were beautiful, but she, the youngest, was so exceedingly so that the sun himself – though he saw her often – was surprised whenever she came out into his presence. Her father had a dozen wives, a hundred children, but she was his favorite. She exceeded the rest not only in feature and proportion but in wit and spirit too. All loved her.
Now, there have been films that will heap praises on a character only to have such lavishness shattered by a poor performance or shoddy casting. The New World does no such thing, placing the ethereal—and only 14!—Kilcher in the main role. She utters just a few lines throughout, but says more with a glance or a flail than some actors will say their whole careers (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke). She is meant to be an abstraction, an allusion to what Smith describes as the basic “reality” of the natives: that they are a dream. If his actions prove to be puzzling throughout, especially after lines like “If only I could go down that river. To love her in the wild, forget the name of Smith. I should tell her. Tell her what? It was just a dream. I am now awake,” then Pocahontas’ sheer illusiveness serves to remind the audience that while Smith might “love” her in the traditional sense, it is really the notion of true freedom that he loves. He wants to escape the shackles of being English, of being enlightened.
And it is this sense of enlightenment that Pocahontas ultimately shatters. Long after John Smith deserts her for the open sea and the call of duty, she sits and receives instruction from the man she will ultimately marry, John Rolfe (the brilliant Christian Bale). He tells her about the months, the days, the hours, the minutes. Yet she asks a single question that grinds his supposed notions of mastery into a fine powder and blows them all into the wind. “What makes the colors of the Earth?” In her “realness”, Pocahontas assumes that one who could divide time into something tangible could also answer the deepest and most unassuming of questions. Rolfe is rendered speechless.
This is the essence of both The New World and Terrence Malick. He sits on his actors and his characters. He revels in the quiet. At so many turns in this film the camera pans and we hear the sound of Virginia wash over us. This quality defines good cinema and constantly separates pure artistry from the need to fill every frame with something eye-popping.
I’d wrap this article in interesting facts about The New World, for want of focusing your attention and in the hope that you will rent this and cherish it as I have, but it doesn’t really matter that only natural light was used or that 65mm film stock made its way to this cinematography for the first time since Branaugh’s Hamlet. You can look that trivia up for yourself. What does matter is that The New World will move the patient and attentive viewer among us. How many films do that nowadays? How many Spielberg films can claim to do this? Sure, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are both heavy on tears and nostalgia, but imagine if they were released not 50 years after their events, but 400, when everyone’s dead. Malick took mythology, essentially, and extracted its power and majesty with a mastery that American history rarely receives.