It’s hard for me to write a lot about Terence Malick’s The New World, which is beautiful, demanding, and near-perfect in its admittedly circumscribed sphere. It’s hard because the romance here, a contrived story in which Captain John Smith woos Indian princess Pocahontas, then cryptically dumps her, is so saddening, despite her ultimate triumph. In part it’s sad because he is an older man taking brutal advantage of a younger woman; in part because Malick lets her stand in for Indians as a race and her personal disappointment for the disaster rapidly gaining on them; but mostly because the film makes obvious the maddening way we go about falling in love when we are young. Why, why must we spend our best passion, our sweetest, most brilliant smiles, touches, our sudden, stopping breaths on people we have no hope of keeping? Why do so many of us have so little left to bring to the person we finally, really love, and who finally, really loves us? Jesus, it’s painful.
The most exciting thing about Malick’s attack on this exceptionally simple — folk-tale simple, and well-worn — story is the way he uses sound editing. I’ve never seen another Malick film (any of the three of them), so perhaps I’m re-criticizing the wheel here, but there’s something thrilling about the way he takes dialogue down a peg, refusing to give it a special place. Words are often not even spoken on screen, but narrated, or said by characters in one scene as we’re already watching another. Astonishingly little is revealed through direct dialogue, and when it is, the words are often odd and hurried (most of Christopher Plummer’s part), crazed (the starvation ravings of the ship’s boys, the religious howling of a few angry zealots), or overheard (a critical conversation in Jamestown which provides the plot’s final reversal).
Yet because he tears dialogue limb from limb, makes it a plastic thing, an element of filmmaking rather than the lazy domineer it is in most movies, Malick makes us listen to every word. Because it is, in most cases, removed from an exact time and place, yet always presented to us at the exact moment we need it, and because it is so spare, at times consisting of a few mumblings, the film’s spoken element demands constant, careful attention. The princess’ dialogue, particularly, is often given in raptures and prayers, over a montage of shots or even scenes, so that by the time it reaches a unifying conclusion, we may forget the antecedent of some vital pronoun. At other times, a scene may be largely silent, or accompanied only by sound effects or James Horner’s unusually sensitive score, but its emotional key may lie in a single, non-diegetic word or phrase. Malick rips dialogue from the mouths of his characters and burns it down to a wisp in order to save it, in order to give it back to us, so that we listen to every word, so that, as in Antonioni’s The Passenger, every word is king of our attention and no word can be missed.
Q’orianka Kilcher has been rightly exalted for her free, generous performance as the Indian princess, an incredible achievement considering she was all of 14 during filming. It may, of course, also be said that it is easier to be emotionally open when one is so young, but there is quite a difference between, say, the very fine performance of Kelly Reno in The Black Stallion and what is going on here. Kilcher must be, and is, a unique force in the film, separate from, yet belonging to, both the natural splendor of her world and the rich human field of her tribe. Both are strong, dominant elements in the visual and narrative plans of the movie, yet Kilcher manages to distinguish herself, largely through physical grace.
In the opening scenes, when her kinsmen are moving through the woods along the shore like soldiers, keeping low and taking turns rising up to catch a glimpse of the English ships, Kilcher is there, moving among them. She is both welcome and unnoticed, as a family member would be; yet she moves in a manner completely different from the men. Her very manner of taking steps sets her apart, yet she flows into and out of them effortlessly. Performance and direction conspire to make her singular and elemental. She is cunning and precise as a dancer, joyous as a mystic. She is nothing ever seen before and unavoidably the film’s narrative and emotional engine, despite excellent performances by both Colin Farrell and Christian Bale as the men in her life. And unlike so many female characters who exhibit greatness, she wields her power sublimely, serenely, without ever doubting that it’s hers. Even when she is ruined, in the middle part of the film, her ruination never makes her less; like Luthien in Tolkien’s Silmarillion, she retains a certain divine and royal power even in the midst of tragedy.
What are Malick’s Indians? They are fierce, deadly, skilled, yet loving, sweet, and easily familial. They are caste-bound, but comfortable with their castes. They are political and smart — early on, one of the Indian king’s advisors realizes that the Europeans must be dealt with and forced out while their numbers are few. They are beautifully decorated, their skin taking the role normally belonging to wardrobe in a film; they are alluring and human, but also alien and distant. They are finally doomed, but never do we pity them. They are neither savages nor noble savages, though they have savage and vengeful moments and are capable of a great, controlled violence.
There’s a wonderful, brief moment not long after the princess steps off the ship in England. She is wandering a great cobblestone plaza, wearing Elizabethan clothes but flanked by an honor guard in Indian war gear, and as she passes she draws attention, this dark-skinned, dark-eyed beautiful girl with her savage protection. And she passes a black man, obvious fully assimilated, and their eyes meet for a second, and he gives her an understanding, sympathetic smile. No more than that, but it’s a moment full of destiny, full of everything that will come after this strange point in history, before racism became an institution, when Europe was intrigued and startled to discover that there were other lands and other peoples.