So subjectively complex and structurally rich, Terrence Malick’s undoubtedly great new film deserves more space and consideration than this mere sneak preview can afford, which of course will involve further viewings—both to sort out its inscrutable strands and luxuriate in its staggering visual and aural tapestry. The most necessary thing to clear up at this point is that The New World completely belongs to newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher; whose delicately emotional gravitas as Pocahontas anchors the film wholly, and the script (as moved along by philosophical voiceover as any Malick film) focuses almost entirely on her, even when it’s often from the point of view of Captain John Smith, played by a (purposely?) ineffectual Colin Farrell.
Most surprising about The New World is that it’s first and foremost a character piece; all of Malick’s usual philosophical concerns (man’s connection to nature, the cohabitation of different earthbound civilizations, the question of what ‘civilization’ really means) are implicit and intact, yet unlike Malick’s other protagonists, Pocahontas becomes less of an abstraction, even as she is dealt with, by John Smith and Malick simultaneously, as Other. Kilcher is more than up to the challenge of having a 160-minute, ostensibly historical epic revolve entirely around her, and in a year of such pathetically meager best actress candidates (front runners include Reese Witherspoon, Keira Knightley… and Charlize Theron, again), Kilcher should rightly be seen as the Oscar front-runner when voters finally get their eyes on it.
Then again, this is still a Malick film, as challenging as ever in its ambitions, even while perhaps functioning as his most accessible narrative. Less historical revisionism than resolutely personal, transcendentalist tone poem (not much of a surprise there), Malick’s fourth picture is adorned with almost nonstop natural beauty, inventive cutting that invites disorienting chronological leaps, and a career-best score by James Horner that swells like the opening strains of a grand symphony that never quite gets started. The New World is technically at least, most like Thin Red Line, and therefore will not likely be met with across-the-map huzzahs and certain commercial success. Yet I can say without qualm at this early stage, that it’s doubtful there will be a more gorgeous Hollywood film for a good long while—at least until the next Malick movie comes out (circa 2015, if we’re lucky).