Watching a Terrence Malick film is like dreaming: images distilled down to the essence of something, whether a place or an emotional state or a person. When we dream, what we see are signifiers... because this is how we live life. The elements around us signify something if nothing other than the fact that we exist, and are alive. The fact of us. I think that is what all Malick movies can be distilled to: the messy, irrefutable, confounding fact of us.
I know much has been made of the fact that Malick is a philosophy graduate from Harvard (summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. But he left that field after a disagreement with his tutor, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (who coined the phrase "ghost in the machine") to become a filmmaker. His films are post-philosophy in a way. What he expresses, or maybe it is more accurate to say how he expresses what he does, in itself is a new kind of philosophy, at once cerebral and visceral. A unifying common theme in Malick's films, film critic Roger Ebert said, is how "Human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world." So what I have found is that no matter what story Malick is telling, it bears his unmistakable perspective on the world which dovetails very neatly with my own, and I suspect a great number of others (in a recent conversation with a very close friend who is quite sympatico with my own psyche, I confessed that I live my daily life on the verge of tears--just look around you, at the overarching majesty of the world, at it all, and I ask you how can you not?).
So for Malick's fourth film (he is a director who is not in a rush, considering that he has been making films since 1973 and has only released eight films), we are taken into the past, to 1607 and the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Captain John Smith (played by Colin Ferrell) is one of the men on board three ships that drop anchor in the James River. The English come ashore and set about building a fort, mistrustful of the Native Americans who were there first. But this film is far from a superficial costume spectacle or period drama. In fact, Malick and his crew worked closely with archaeologists, Jamestown historians, and Native American tribal leaders to strike the correct tone. The Native actors trained for weeks to become convincing members of the Powhatan tribe, the people who lived in that part of Virginia at that time, studying movement and voice, and choosing body paint and animal totems to express in dance. The white actors spent time training in weaponry (shooting a musket is fraught with complicated details), and fighting with swords. The fort was actually built by a crew of carpenters using logs and wood from the area in exactly the way such a structure would have been built. The Native village structures and longhouses were built using the exact techniques that were employed by Native Americans 400 years ago. The veracity went so far as using the correct strains of corn (our modern corn has been hybridized and cross-bred but Native corn was thicker, tougher, heartier, larger) and tobacco. The reality of all this helped Malick to film the way he likes: to let his actors loose to live this truth organically, to have his actors develop a relationship to a real place instead of an artificial set, to have this action happen spontaneously and unencumbered by storyboards, and for his cameraman to record it all without tracks, lights, dollies, grips, or extra crew in the way. Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer working with Malick on this project, used a special lens from Panavision that allowed them to work in a widescreen format while using only natural light (a no-no in traditional filmmaking) and achieving a depth of field where everything (or almost everything) is in focus.
By the time the English attempt to make a colony, problems with disease, supply shortages, and a simple lack of information on ways to live in this land force Smith to take a trip upriver to a Native village to trade for vital food and supplies. But he is separated from his party and taken prisoner by a local tribe. Slated to be killed (possibly), the chief's daughter intervenes and manages to have his life spared. Not once in the entire film do we hear the name of this young woman, who Smith falls in love with, and who is ultimately cast out. We of course know it is Pocahontas (played with stunning innocence and skill by Q'orianka Kilcher), but as I said before, this is not a glorified period spectacle. In true Malick form, dialogue is sparse in "The New World" and often we only hear the murmurs of inner monologues of characters as we follow them, privy to the private, whispered half-thoughts in their heads and hearts. Who she is is not important. What she is doing and what is happening to and around her is.
And of course the film is ravishingly beautiful, with shots of unspoiled nature and humans simply living in the middle of it, walking and touching lightly. The fact of us. The fact of here. The fact of now. It is always now. And you are here, wherever you are. Jamestown is one story. There are more...
Recommend? Absolutely yes yes yes.