Terrence Malick’s take on the legend of Pocahontas, loosely based on disputed history, is that of the Native American girl (androgynous Q’orianka Kilcher) who stole the heart of British captain John Smith (Collin Farrel), and bridged the divide between English colonialists and her fellow feral Indians in the new unexplored, unmolested world. On one hand, it’s a simple love story, on the other it’s about explorers using Christ to assert dominance on the gentle natives who will harm no one, but nonetheless will defend their land if need be. And how ultimately they accept their fate, peacefully, these Children of the Earth, Mother bless them. Is this simplistic sentimentality? Is it stupid? I don’t know, but it’s what you get when peering underneath the mechanics of Malick’s poetry (visual or otherwise), a feeling augmented by Farrel’s uneasy voice-over.
To critique a proposed work of art, the critic must meet it halfway in that space between speaker and audience where meaning sits. Once the meaning is found and interpreted, its value must be judged against truth itself. Terrence Malick’s The New World posits, seemingly, that the only truth is a dream, sparse and incredible, from which you awake with despair and anguish as you realize it destroyed, yet you turn away for something more simple, like trees reaching for the light of the sun.
Personal and specific, it nevertheless wants to be holistic and transcendental with its summoning of grand metaphors and its lush visual appeal. Any approach to rationalize it proves futile, and perhaps herein lies its greatness, if any, but the suspicion remains that Malick is winging it, playing on artistic pretense — his own, and that of any critic overly zealous to lay praise.