Our mental picture of the English settlers' landing in America tends to look as stiff as a grammar-school pageant: Englishmen right, with muskets; Indians left, bearing corn. Terrence Malick's "The New World" wipes clean our palette. The visionary director of "Badlands" and "The Thin Red Line" dispenses with pomp and rhetoric, and plunks us in a grassy field that would become Jamestown, Va., where, in 1607, weary, armor-clad white men make first contact with "the naturals." Barely clothed, faces painted, the natives circle the newcomers, poking, sniffing, licking, curious to see what these hairy fellows are made of. It's an astonishing scene, at once monumental, lyrical and almost comically intimate. You can feel the grass underfoot, the humidity in the air. This is, for the Europeans, the dawn of a new world; it's also nothing more or less than a bunch of wary, frightened men in a field, who may or may not have a future. And for Chief Powhatan's tribe, it's the beginning of the end of their old world, whose rules and customs the interlopers have no interest in understanding.
Malick's magnificent, frustrating epic mixes fact and legend to conjure up a reverie about Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), her love for Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) and her crossing from one culture to another. It's a voyage that leads her to Christianity, stiff leather shoes and marriage to tobacco grower John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who takes his young Powhatan princess bride to London to meet the king and queen. Just as Malick and his great cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, enable us to see the New World's landscape through Smith's awed eyes, we discover England through hers. It's as if we're seeing Western civilization for the first time, its formal gardens lunar in their beauty.
The casting of the unknown 14-year-old Kilcher proves a masterstroke. Her Pocahontas is playful, proud, soulful. Kilcher's face (she's of native Peruvian descent) has a chiseled, changeable beauty you want to study from every angle. Historians doubt that the real Pocahontas and Smith were ever lovers, but Malick spins a compelling romance, sweet, passionate--and deceptive. Farrell is a tender seducer, but her love for him puts her at odds with her own people, whom she's forced to betray. "Don't trust me," Smith warns, even as he pleads for her devotion. "You don't know who I am." The tragic collision of two competing cultures lurks inside his ambivalence.
Conventional storytelling doesn't interest Malick. Nature is as much a character as the humans. Scenes that would traditionally be played for high drama--Smith, in chains for subordination, saved from hanging by the ship's captain (Christopher Plummer)--are tossed off in a quick aside. More poet than dramatist, Malick prefers interior monologues to dialogue, eavesdropping on the inner thoughts of his three main characters, as he did in "The Thin Red Line." With mixed results. These whispered ruminations are beautifully written, but whose voice are we hearing? Malick's early-17th-century characters all suspiciously share the introverted, 21st-century sensitivity of their creator.
Malick works instinctively, discovering his movies as he films them on location, then rediscovering and reshaping them in the editing room. The reward is moments of transcendent beauty. What gets sacrificed is structure. The meditative, meandering middle of "The New World" is like a symphony with three adagio movements in a row. You hunger for a scherzo. The paradoxical Malick is a shoot-from-the-hip perfectionist who may be temperamentally incapable of making perfect movies. He can't see the forest because he's head over heels in love with the beauty of the trees.