When you only make one movie every seven years or so, people tend to mythologize your work. The odd thing about Terrence Malick is that, while he's certainly in that category (The New World is his first since The Thin Red Line, which debuted in 1998, which was his first since 1978's masterful Days of Heaven), he's probably best known for demythologizing one of the most common tropes of our time, the unfettered bravery and camaraderie of the men who fought World War II (indeed the unimpeachable honor of the whole war itself).
The Thin Red Line opens to find Private Witt (James Caviezel) AWOL among the natives of the Solomon Islands even as he and his fellow Americans prepare to take Guadalcanal. As the film follows the men of Charlie Company, Malick imbues Witt's character with messianic qualities. This is a man, he suggests, who has weighed the moral cost of fighting a war against the physical cost of losing a war, and found that he'd rather abstain all together. Far from being a coward, Malick suggests, Witt is an existential hero. Gorgeously shot and poetically narrated, Malick further puts one of the most important battles of the Pacific Theater into a context of nature, love, God and forgiveness that makes the whole affair seem, if not small, at least fleeting. Bravery, ambition, victory -- all those things a nation at war trumpets as divine qualities -- are transient and empty vessels. It's a notion that feels, at once, highly transcendental and deeply existential. Somewhat contradictory, I know, but nonetheless stunning.
Now, some eight years later, Malick is back with a film that explores similar themes in a similar setting, drawing very similar parallels toward what seems, at least a similar end. The values of the West have become divorced from the spiritual and are corrupted, he suggests. We trade such things as love, quietude and brotherhood all too willingly for fame, turbulence and desire. We are never at peace and thus our aspirations yield disastrous outcomes. We kill for reasons that are, at best, selfish and, at worst, evil.
Malick works doggedly toward explaining these points; he just never really gets there. Execution is part of the problem, but much of it is simply the muddiness of the story itself. Or rather, whereas The Thin Red Line shows you a derelict private and gradually reveals him to be a source of hope for humanity, The New World gradually demonstrates the speedy corruption of an innocent and good people. The former was written like a parable, with very clean lines and delineations between value systems, where at least the most righteous fight and remain uncorrupted, the latter muddles through the cultural assimilation of Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) and her people without a clear message. They lead an existence of such startling beauty, generosity and decisiveness of action, yet they are overwhelmed -- first by force, then through institutionalization.
Malick depicts this almost without commentary. No broad philosophical ruminations and no sense of hope. Where before we have Private Witt, AWOL and communing with the aboriginal peoples, learning from them, making their world-view part of his, we now have John Smith (Colin Farrell), a poetic soul who touches the very thing he's been looking for his whole life, only to desert it out of ambition and a sense of duty -- values that seem far less essential to his character than the desire for love and peace. There are no heroes here, no real villains. Only desperation and longing. It feels very much like the kind of grasping, anxious story Malick might have made before The Thin Red Line. It not only feels muddier, it feels less self-assured. Like he's somehow lost sight of whatever good he'd found in the world.
Of course, telling this story differently would be working against history. These events did happen; these people did live. And it's in many ways a more poignant and nuanced tale than The Thin Red Line. As she is made to continually make and remake her life after Smith's desertion, Pocahontas is able to find, if not happiness, at least some semblance of the peace she once knew. It's not very satisfying though, because, despite dealing with far fewer characters, Malick can't manage to write into the cracks and crevices of any of them. Not just John Smith and John Rolfe (Christian Bale), but Pocahontas herself feel broadly drawn. Like some historical bas-relief, it has more depth than a sketch, but less than a sculpture.
The New World is still a good film, and a beautiful one, it's just a little tragic, muted and corrupt. Making it -- I suppose -- something of a metaphor for both itself and for the historical realities it references.