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Malick’s latest a new world, familiar style

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Once upon a time, Terrence Malick made “Badlands” (1973) and “Days of Heaven” (1978), setting an impossibly high bar for the his subsequent works.

Perhaps realizing that following his pair of debut films would be a difficult task, the maverick director took a 20-year sabbatical, which he finally broke with 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” a sometimes brilliant, more often frustrating, treatise on the meaning of war. He returns seven years later, with “The New World,” a film that continues his penchant for excess but also reminds viewers that he has genuine cinematic vision, an increasingly rare thing in Hollywood.

Once upon a time, too, Malick had an editor. The biggest criticism that can be leveled against “The New World” is that, at 135 minutes, it is too long. The film is a 20-minute story stretched out over two hours. Malick’s first two films each ran 95 minutes, an appropriate length for his artsy mixture of elliptical narrative and naturalistic tableaux. “The Thin Red Line,” by comparison, ran 170 minutes, and “The New World” follows that film’s extreme lead.

“The New World” has the surest narrative footing of any Malick film since 1973′ “Badlands,” but that really isn’t saying much. The director has little concern or need for the typical rhythmic pulse of a Hollywood film, focusing instead on shots of nature and the quasi-philosophical yearnings of the protagonists – which isn’t to say that plot has been completely jettisoned, as there is a clear story being told, even if its pacing is fitfully uneven.

The film is a reconstruction of the deconstructed Pocahontas legend, providing a slick new gloss of mythos to the classic story. Obviously not as saccharinely sentimental as other translations (Disney’s 1995 film version being foremost), “The New World” still brings a gracefully storied edge to the proceedings, mostly thanks to the vision of its director.

The story follows a group of English colonists who found Jamestown in the 17th century. Led by Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), John Smith (Colin Farrell) is a mutinous prisoner at the film’s start, as they settle on the coast modern Virginia. In an attempt to redeem himself, Smith tries to make contact with the Native Americans, which nearly leads to his death, save for the efforts of Pocahontas (14 year-old Q’orianka Kilcher), the daughter of Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg). Smith and Pocahontas fall in love, but Smith eventually leaves, and Pocahontas instead marries farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who brings her back to England.

Malick has always been a visionary who finds a detached beauty in strange things, whether it be the mundane lives of poor farmers, the inanity of young lovers on the run or the brutality of war. Here, he finds a sweeping grace not only in the photogenic landscape of America, but also in a wonderfully recreated London.

All of Malick’s films are in some way about the contention of man against nature, and “The New World” is no exception. Neither the colonists nor the Native Americans are presented as wholly good or wholly bad, which complicates the director’s moral stance. Smith and Rolfe are good men, and Captain Newport and Chief Powhatan are competent leaders.

It’s easy to get the impression that Malick has made the exact film he wanted to make, but that doesn’t necessarily bode well for the viewer. Self-indulgent to a fault, “The New World” is saved from collapsing under its own weight – like “The Thin Red Line” – by a restoration of the childlike wonder that permeated “Days of Heaven.” In fact, though “The New World” may be closer to “Red Line” in style, it is closer to ” Heaven” in tone. Like that 1978 masterpiece, it combines breathtaking visuals and an un-cloying naivete that often transcends criticism. Still, the film is overlong and suffers through passages that wear even the most tested of cinematic patience thin.