Pithier writers than I have argued that movies are a form of collective dreaming. Although that feels like the sort of criticism better used as an IM signature than a tool to describe the mechanic of how a film works, I am at a loss to describe The New World in any more coherent way than by calling it a dream.
The fourth film by the notoriously inactive Terrence Malick, The New World is “about” the Jamestown colonists of 1607, their meeting with the indigenous people of Virginia, and above all the love between English Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). But that entirely misses the point of the film.
All of Malick’s work (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) concerns itself with the relationship between man and nature. More than that: all three films are meditations on the spiritual aspect of man’s relationship to the natural world. The New World changes that up a little bit. In this case, the theme is the relationship to place; that is, while the New World may be a more natural environment than Jamestown, it is more important that it is New. The first hour of the film largely focuses on Smith, and on his sojourn among the native people, and as he idles there, it becomes obvious that he is indulging in a new and completely satisfying life. He does not “go native” so much as he fully experiences a totally novel and ideal way of living. Similarly, when Pocahontas goes to her own New World – London – she experiences a similar sense of discovery and idealization. There is a shot in the king’s court in England in which she observes native American animals in cages. A simple reading, and one that I believe is entirely part of the film, is that these animals metaphorically represent her entrapment by the white people. Yet more obviously, and somehow more counterintuitively, there is another reading that I can’t shake out of my mind: unlike all of these other things taken from America, she is not in a cage.
There’s another entire layer of theme related to Smith and Pocahontas’ love, which I hesitate to describe, not because it would spoil anything but because it is so closely bound to the experience of sitting through the movie. And this is where the movie starts to confound me, and I can no longer describe what the movie is about, and must look at how it is about it. As I mentioned, The New World is similar to a dream. Like all Malick films, the plot is slowed to the point of nonexistence; instead, the movie is a chain of images and moments and emotions. Somehow, they are intuitively connected, even though there is often no chronological, spatial or narrative connection between shots. Instead, there is a simple rightness to the progression of images and events, in the logic of emotion and intuition. The movie does not happen as a text, and this makes it difficult to describe it; rather, it washes over the viewer, as an experience.
It is impossible to overstate the degree to which Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, deserves credit for this effect. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made to shoot the entire film with natural light. This has been done before, and successfully, but Lubezki manages to wring extraordinary beauty out of this limitation. I refer to beauty less in the sense that every frame could be extracted and hung on the wall; rather, the images in the film have a haunting, almost hallucinatory quality, neither soft nor sharp, and with a strange emphasis of focus (which is to some degree the result of another strange choice, to shoot a few scenes on 65mm film and the bulk of the picture on anamorphic 35mm). Terrence Malick’s films have all been utterly beautiful, but The New World might have the most striking and wonderful visual technique of any of them.