The New World (2005) (Review)

The New World (2005)
Dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Q’Orianka Kilcher, Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, etc.
135 minutes


Should You See This Film?

I can say with confidence that certain idiots should see this film without me saying anything else about it: Kevin, this is another “omakase” selection—just trust me on this; Mitchell, Penny, Chris, Grace–and I will include Tony in this bunch–I’m not entirely sure if you guys are going to like this, but you will be interested in seeing this film on the big screen. Go see the film and read my comments later. It is playing on one of the larger screens at Dole! (I actually sought out the manager and thanked him for showing this on the big screen, especially since I thought it was going to be on the smaller screen.) This is a film that should be seen on the biggest screen with the best sound system possible. I will go with you—maybe with each of you separately–if you see it. This may not last much longer in the theaters and it may be moved to a smaller screen. If I missed this film and only saw it later on dvd, I would have been kicking myself for not seeing it in the theater. (Indeed, even though I have seen it, I still feel an urgency to see it again on the big screen because I may not get another chance.) This may be your one and only chance to see this in that setting. The clock is ticking.

For Don, Marc, Joel, and Jill, this is normally not a film that you would be enthusiastic about, but if you decide to see this film, see it on the big screen. Cindy, Burgess, Jenn and others, I’m not sure enough about your tastes to say either way. I’ll try to say more about the film to give you an idea if this will interest you or not. If you’ve seen other art films and not liked them or never seen an art film, this would be a good one to try, particularly on the big screen, which is the format for the film.

Don’t go into the film expecting an interesting plot. This is not a plot driven movie. The plot is almost irrelevant. The characters and their relationships are also secondary, at least in a conventional sense. This is an art film– of the highest caliber. By “art film” I do not mean something avant-garde or abstract. If I can use a painting analogy, the film is more like a painting by Leonardo Davinci rather than Jackson Pollock. The film is also more like a poem than prose. The author uses images and repeating metaphors to express specific ideas and a vision. However, like most good poems, the film depends on interpretation and does not contain one simple explanation.

If you ever get in the mood to go to a museum or gallery to look at art, you should be in the same frame of mind when you go to this film. When I’m in these moods, I’m willing to really look at the art, not expecting that I’ll “get” them right away.

There were also times when the film gives you the same sensation as walking through a beautiful forest and hearing the ambient sounds of nature. For me that can be a satisyfing aesthetic experience–like looking at a good painting, hearing good music or experiencing a good art film–that can not only be beautiful, but calming as well. You can enjoy the film on these levels alone.

But I want to stress that that is not all there is to this film. Malick has ideas and a vision he wants to convey through film. The visual beauty of the film is not an end in and of itself. If you go into the film without expecting a compelling plot, and you are open to appreciate a film as a poem–a work requiring interpretation and revealing layers of metaphors–than I believe this can be a really rewarding film experience.

The general “story” of the film starts with the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. The settlers arrive and then eventually interact with the Native Americans, leading to conflict. The film goes on to tell the story of John Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe. First Smith meets and falls in love with Pocahontas, then he leaves. Rolfe enters the picture and falls in love with Pocahontas. That is the gist of the story.

I should say that part of the reason the film experience was so gratifying was because I anticipated and understood the film while watching it, especially near the end. Like 2001 and L’Avventura, I grasped the meaning—or “a” meaning—of the film pretty quickly after seeing it. That’s often a big reason for enjoying a film, particularly an art film. In a way that’s sort of superficial and petty, but there you go.

One last thing before I launch into more personal comments and analysis–and this is sort of a “cheat sheet” comment. A comment from a review of Malick’s previous film, The Thin Red Line helped me develop an understanding for this film. In that film, one reviewer talked about the way Malick shot the film as if Nature seemed to be watching Man and his folly. I recalled that comment while watching The New World and it influenced my interpretation of the film.

Personal Comments and Analysis

Experiencing Terrance Malick’s The New World on the big screen is one of the most gratifying aesthetic experiences I have ever had. The film is a work of art, and it is one of the best Art films I have ever seen—in the same class as 2001: A Space Odyssey and L’Avventura. Indeed, while determining which of these films are objectively the “best” may be difficult, if not impossible (and pointless), on a personal level, The New World may be my favorite.

Unlike 2001 and L’Avventura, I really loved the vision of this film–namely, the reconciliation between the Civilization and Nature. I saw this occuring in Pocahontas–who I ultimately see as a mythic figure, like Hercules or Maui–at the end of the film. I especially love the scenes depicting this. We see Pocahontas dancing in the manicured gardens of England–doing cartwheels, pouring water over her head, playing hide-and-seek with her son–all the kinds of things she did with vitality in her world. The Horner score comes in at these moments and builds a glorious feeling–sort of a combination of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Malick also intercuts contrasting images of the Native envoy who looks puzzled at the precisely manicured garden. Another shot shows another envoy sitting in a throne-like chair in the palace at one moment, and then in a quick edit, we see him dashing out to the garden. The significance is to establish the way these people could not reconcile the two worlds, hightligthing the triumph and heroic quality of Pocahontas.

I also loved the fact that she dies at the end, but says that that is part of life; that she returns to the “New World”–which has a double meaning because she has created a new world by reconciling Nature and Civilization–the European with the Native American; she tells John Rolfe that their son will live and that’s good enough. To me the son is the biological representation of this reconciliation of the two worlds. His living in America symbolizes the perpetuation and growth of this New World. It’s such a wonderful vision and it’s expressed so beautifully. It’s one of my favorite endings to a film and explains why I prefer this, on a personal level, to 2001 and L’Avventura.

Let me back up and discuss the scenes that occur before the ending. To me, the film is about two characters finding themselves and the struggle to find meaning and wholeness. This is tied in with movements between worlds: Pocahontas moves from the world of her tribe to the European world of the settlers. John Smith moves in the other direction, from the European world to the world of the “Naturals” (as the settlers call them). Each movement is made by a sort of death and resurrection. This happens twice for Smith: first when he arrives in North America, he death sentence for mutiny is commuted. The resurrection is beautifully conveyed in images of Smith looking out from the bars of a cell with light pouring in and water dripping on him. The second time occurs when he arrives in the world of the Native tribe. This time Pocohantas saves his life, and Malick shoots the scene ritualizing Smith’s resurrection. Pocahontas also experiences a kind of “death” by being cast out by her father from her tribe. She is resurrected when the settlers purchase her from another tribe. Malick also uses the passage over water to emphasize that the characters are entering into another world.

My understanding of the film depends on my interpretation of these different worlds and what they represent. The European world represents the man-made world, civilization, structure and order imposed by people. The Native American world–or the world of the “Naturals”–represents Nature and the Wild, a place that man has not tamed and mucked up. It also seems to represent vitality, freedom and emotion. This interpretation is sort of tricky because the Native Americans are also human, and they impose a structure on the world, too. However, I see them as being more in touch with nature–so much so that they are a part of nature more than opposed to it. Now, my sentences sound as if there is a clear and precise definition of these worlds, and I want to emphasize that is not the case. These are some of the aspects–not all–that these worlds represent.

I also liked the way Malick used music and sound to convey the different worlds. The ambient sounds of nature provide a contrast t0 the Classical pieces selected, including the Horner score.

When Smith enters into Pocahontas’ world he finds Eden. People don’t have words for forgiveness (which later proves to be false) and they care for their children (which is contrasted with the way the settlers treat their children). More importantly, he falls in love with Pocahontas. I found the scenes between these two characters beautiful. I liked the jump-cut editing and the close-up of hands, and the use of the Classical music during these moments. I would understand if some people find these scenes a little too cliched or syrupy.

On the other hand, the decision of the chief to destory the settlement sort of dispels the noble savage motif. It is not the “white man” that is out to destroy, but the Naturals. The other reason I believe Malick showed this was to convey the conflict between the natural world and the man-made one.

But the significance Smith’s journey into the world of the Native Americans is that he finds something really valuable–his love and relationship with Pocahontas. This relationship can really give him meaning and fulfilment, but he is uncertain about this.

Pocahontas’ journey into a different world also leads to a point of uncertainty. When she discovers that Smith is alive, she becomes uncertain–among other things does she still loves him. Should she go to him or stay with Rolfe. To me, this signified, at least in part, her returning to her world or staying within the new. Prior to this moment we see her becoming part of the European world: she puts on their clothes; she learns to read; she receives an English name, etc. She becomes a part of that world, and I would say that in the process, she loses the vitality, joy and wonder that she had her world. This losing Smith and learning that he has died. To be a part of this world, to find happiness and, perhaps, herself, she must resolve her feelings with Smith, especially when she learns that he is really alive.

That she resolves her feelings by choosing Rolfe…well, what really happens in the scene where she reunites with Smith and finally choose Rolfe? I’m not sure. She realizes that she is a different person, someone transformed? She realizes she no longer loves Smith? She just realizes that Rolfe is better for her? Perhaps, it’s all of these things and more. But in this decision she not only becomes part of the European world, but actually regains the spirit that she had in her world. Again, this signified the reconciliation of Nature and Man–a new world. Also, I can’t help but think that the new world of America–it’s hope and possibility–is tied in with all of this, but that is not really clear to me.

I should mention something about the actor who plays Pocahontas, Q’Orlianka Kilcher. She probably doesn’t deserve an Oscar for her acting, but if you could give an Oscar for presence this would be a role to do it. Yes, she is beautiful, but she conveys more than that: joy, sorrow, compassion, innocence. In the film, Pocahontas is supposed to be a very unique person, almost god-like, and Q’Orianka and the rest of the filmmakers achieve that. While watching the film a second time, I felt like she would have a been a worthy subject for a series of works by a great painter or photographer. She just a very engaging quality to her.

Back to John Smith. He chooses to leave Pocahontas, and the reasons are unclear. Does he feel like her world is a dream, a Utopia, that one must forget to live in the real world? Does he leave her because of ambition–to find a passage to the Indies? Does he leave because he doubts his character and himself? That is not clear, which is a good thing, because the motivation is probably complex. However, his decision seems to be the wrong one. We see him on the shore looking lost as he ostensibly searches for a passage to the Indies. He also says that he may have already found the “Indies”–meaning the one thing that would give him fulfillment.

Some people may seem lines like this, as well as other parts of the film, as bad poetry, and I can understand that. But the beauty of the images, sound and music and Malick’s use of these to express his ideas and vision far outweigh any weaknesses in the film, especially given Malick’s amibition. There are very few directors with Malick’s talent, and I think The New World is his masterpiece.

11 Responses to “The New World (2005) (Review)”

  1. cindy

    Thanks for the recommendation Reid.

    It’s actually playing in Bozeman right now, and may not be around much longer.

    I stopped reading your description after you compared it to going to an art gallery so I wouldn’t know too much going in.

    I really like art/independent films (e.g. been going to HIFF since huigh school when the whole thing happened for free at Varsity theater).

    When you mention an art film where plot is irrelevant, it made me think of “Northfork.”

    Oh dear. I did not realize this Fiaz guy’s post above mine. Weird. Oh well. I’ll stick it up anyway.

    Has anyone reviewed “Capote.” That’s playing in town too, but I just can’t make myself go see it. Ditto for “Munich.”

  2. Reid


    Northfork is a good example of a similiar art film in that both are visually oriented, poetic and less narrative-based. If you like those qualities, you should see this film, especially on the big screen. Other films that have this similar visual-poetic element are Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, and Malick’s other films, especially Days of Heaven, which, incidently, I consider one of the most beautiful looking films, particularly in terms of it’s use of light.

    You know I tried to think of other films like this one, and I had a really hard time. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or some of Tarkovsky’s films like Mirror and The Sacrifice come to mind in that they’re all visually oriented, but maybe not necessarily so poetic. Persona is more psychological; and the Tarkovsky films seem more like dreams/nightmares than poems. They’re all really terrific visual films though.

    I don’t think there are any reviews of Capote, but I wrote a brief review of Munich in the “Recent Movies 2006” thread.

  3. Chris


    10/10 from Reid is enough for me. I’ve been wanting to see this, but it looks like it is only playing at one theater in the area — it’s been out here for a 5 or 6 weeks now I think.


  4. Mitchell

    Still playing at the Cannery. Hoping to see it tomorrow night.

  5. Mitchell

    The good news: I finally found time to see this movie Thursday night, its last night at the Cannery.

    The bad news: Half an hour into it, the film burned, or broke, or something. I got a pass to see any movie in the theater that evening and one additional film some other time.

    The good news: I saw The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which Jim Emerson said was the real best picture last year. I don’t know about that, but it was pretty dang good.

  6. cindy

    Hey Reid,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I went to see this on Sunday and found it stunningly beautiful.


  7. pen

    And not strangely disturbing?

    Perhaps it is because the lead character reminds me of my 12 year old niece, but am I the only one who got hung up on these adult men looking at a “child” with lust-perhaps-turned-to-love? I guess once one gets past that and sees the characters as symbols (nature and her relationship to man/civilization, perhaps?) that it is less uncomfortable?

    I agree that the look of the movie was beautiful . . . otherworldly and almost dream-like in that some parts are so clear, sharp and intense and other parts are more a hazy, bittersweet mist.

    What did you guys think of her voiceovers?

  8. cindy

    I don’t know how long it was since John Smith left her and John Rolfe got interested. I realize that I aged her a little bit in my mind as she did seem very young when Smith met her. She and Smith had a tenderness about them that I thought was believable though. She didn’t seem coerced and her father seemed to acknowledge her as sort of a child-woman.

    I have to say that I was amused by how soft-spoken (to the point of mumbling) Colin Farrell was. Maybe I’m losing my hearing. I appreciated the quietness of the film– the minimalist approach to dialogue. I can’t remember much of what she said really. I was mainly caught up in watching the actress as she moved and smiled.

  9. Mitchell

    Don’t forget that we’re talking about the very late Middle Ages, just before the Renaissance in England. If Pocahontas was old enough to bear children, she was considered a woman by European standards. There is some evidence that Pocahontas might have already been married to a member of her tribe two years before the colonists took her hostage. So yeah, she might have been thirteen, but times were different. Romeo’s Juliet was around that age, too.

  10. kevin

    I saw this movie last weekend at Wallace, and my clothes came out kinda stinky from the seats. Maybe I sat on something. Or someone. Anyhow, I agree with Reid in the above points of the movie. Visually, it’s just gorgeous. Having spent some periods of time in the rural Mid-Atlantic (Maryland) in both the summer and winter, the lighting and cinematography captured the mood pretty well of what the mid-Atlantic in an unspoiled time must have felt like. And Horner’s score is appropriately dead-on as companion to the visual style.

    That being said, though, there were a few things that made me a little uneasy. I remarked to Reid earlier that I thought it was a movie that pretty clearly represented a dominant culture view, particularly in 3 ways:

    1. John Smith’s ability and freedom to choose to leave behind his culture representing a place of privilege.
    2. The way both John Smith & Capt. Rolfe sort of “objectified” Pocahontas, either for her object value (“who’s that hot-looking natural?”-Smith) or her utility value (“who’s that hot-looking natural with the child-bearing hips?” -Rolfe.) It’s almost like Malick replicates the same kind of objectification that Smith and Rolfe do of Pocahontas, by ultra-aestheticizing the natural context of 16th century Virginia, & de-emphasizing the undeniable historical / social dynamics in play.
    3. The sacrifice Pocahontas made to leave behind her culture to embrace others that seemed disproportionately large compared to those sacrifices made by others to embrace hers.

    Maybe what feels somewhat unsettling is the contrast between how persuasively beautiful the film aesthetic is, and the overall historical “ugliness” of that whole relationship between Native Americans & Europeans. Maybe the film is simply toobeautiful. I like Randy Newman’s song “Great Nations of Europe” for a 3-minute musical elaboration of that dynamic.

    Again, I don’t think it’s what the movie was about, or anywhere close to being what it was about, but it was hard for me to ignore it given the history of the subject matter.

  11. Reid

    Cindy and Kevin, I’m glad you both liked the film.

    I’m curious to know if had a similar interpreation of the film? Also, do you feel like my strong recommendation to see the film in the theater was justified?


    I’m not sure how to respond to your comments regarding the “cultural bias” in the film. My first response is that I didn’t feel uneasy because, like you said, I didn’t think was about making a fair and balance presentation of European and Native American culture.

    I also don’t think I agree that the film contained those points you raised. I don’t want to get into it since we both agree that the film was not about the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans. I have a question though: must a film that has European settlers and Native Americans depict the “ugliness” of that relationship?


    I have mixed feelings about voice overs in general. I thought it was OK to fairly effective. Sometimes the dialogue bordered on hokiness, but it was not very irritating. I also thought it provided important clues to the characters and the meaning of the film.

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