Writer-director Terrence Malick takes his time, but whenever he releases a movie, cultish devotion follows. So far, the Malick collection has consisted of just three films: the ironic crime drama, “Badlands” (1973); the rapturous romantic triangle, “Days of Heaven” (1978); and the spiritual World War II nature epic, “The Thin Red Line” (1998).
His fourth feature, “The New World,” is likely to engender more respect than love. It’s typical of his work in many ways — sometimes it even lapses into self-parody — but it’s curiously distant and arty, without the unifying personality that made his previous work so distinctive.
Malick always uses narrators to accompany and interpret the lush visuals of his films: Sissy Spacek’s twangy serial-killer accomplice in “Badlands,” Linda Manz’s self-contradictory survivor in “Days of Heaven,” Jim Caviezel’s dying soldier (and the voices of other battle-weary men) in “The Thin Red Line.”
“The New World” is also narrated by several actors, none of whom is given much of an opportunity to establish a strong point of view. Colin Farrell’s 17th Century explorer, Capt. John Smith, is a blank slate much of the time. So is teenage newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas, who saves Smith from execution and falls for him when he goes native.
Only Christian Bale’s John Rolfe, the sweet-natured Englishman who eventually marries her, begins to suggest a three-dimensional character. The most affecting scenes involve the triangle that develops once Smith exits from the scene and Rolf proposes to Pocahontas, who accepts him and follows him to England when she’s told that Smith is dead.
As in “Days of Heaven,” the heroine finds herself longing for her difficult first love but gradually accepting the steadier, more reliable nature of his successor. Malick’s script accepts the Pocahontas legend while deliberately underplaying some of its more dramatic episodes. Her rescue of Smith is almost a throwaway, as is the death of one major character.
Malick has never been a plot person. He’s less interested in establishing narrative turning points than he is in capturing a moment: a savage knife thrust in battle that takes away the life of a beloved character; the Native Americans’ sighting of three settlers’ ships that will forever change their lives; the tentative first contact between the settlers and the natives. Especially effective are the street scenes in London, which doesn’t seem notably less grungy than Virginia.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography is highly reminiscent of the work of cameramen on Malick’s previous films, as is the poetic use of sound effects and existing music. James Horner is officially credited with the score, but Malick leans heavily on Mozart and especially Wagner to create a mood.
Several famous actors turn up in roles that turn out to be astonishingly brief: David Thewlis, Wes Studi, Ben Chaplin and Christopher Plummer as Capt. Christopher Newport, who dubs the Indians “The Naturals” before disappearing. Their big scenes may have been left on the cutting-room floor, though the movie already seems overlong at two and a half hours.
As with all of Malick’s films, “The New World” will never be mistaken for the work of anyone else. He remains as distinctive as Fellini and Kubrick. For devotees, that may be enough.