As James Crawford admits here, the academic discipline of film studies has never been particularly adept at discussing performance. After all, focusing on the stars is something we’re supposed to leave behind once we hear the word mise-en-scène for that first magical time, and devote our ramblings to the intricate interplay of editing and cinematography in In the Mood for Love and how the open spaces in No Country for Old Men totally signify the void at the heart of modern society. And rightly so! (It better be, as that’s what I do all day.) So getting theory-drenched cinephiles to talk about acting can be like trying to feed a squirrel that’s particularly skeptical of your intentions and really just wants to read you this article about the inception of Technicolor. (We hope we’re endearing when we do that.)
Auterism doesn’t automatically disavow acting—Vertigo is both the definitive Hitchcock text and Jimmy Stewart’s finest moment—so that’s out as an excuse. (Besides, we have to keep up our perpetual claims to be so over auterism.) We can always fall back on the canard that film is an industrial and reconstituted art, subject to radical reshaping in the editing booth, and as such cannot offer audiences the unmediated window onto performance that theater provides. But in that case, we should surely prove skillful at discussing performances that exist within the most radically edited of films. Everyone loves a good session of camera-magnet scenery chewing (I will eventually get around to mashing up the best of Daniel Plainview and Walter Sobchak), but there’s something to be said for acting that manages to glow from within the most imagist and concept-heavy of works. Terrence Malick’s The New World is nothing if not imagist, and though “concept-heavy” is the wrong word for a film so light on its feet, Malick’s masterpiece has so many absorbing features that a little thing like its leading star is easily lost in the shuffle.
Malick’s complex relationship with the studios (and the box office) is best exemplified by his brilliant collaborations with male stars, whose well-known features are forever receding into the landscapes. In Malick’s work, Hollywood’s prettiest boys are never called upon to hold forth at length or demonstrate their ferocious emotional range, but rather hint at the sparks of joy and pain roiling beneath those lovely faces. Malick honed this art with Martin Sheen in Badlands and Richard Gere in Days of Heaven before fragmenting his collective soul among a star-studded cast of soldiers (including Jim Caviezel, John Cusack, and Sean Penn) in The Thin Red Line, but he never found a more artfully broken vessel than Colin Farrell as John Smith.
Even among The New World’s lamentably few supporters (but O, we are fervent), Farrell doesn’t get much love. Kent Jones in particular made a whole thing about it, calling the performance “awful,” “lazy,” and, bafflingly, “anachronistic,” arguing that Farrell’s Smith having tattoos was a marring historical accuracy. Frankly, I couldn’t give less of a shit about a detail that autonomous from the rest of the movie, and Malick’s historical intentions are more complicated (and ambitious) than one-to-one representation. But there’s no denying that Farrell, like The New World as a whole, is caught between poles here: his largely silent acting, caught up in Malick’s whirlwind digital editing, is far removed from a blockbuster role, but he can’t hide his familiar jowly features and distinctly Irish accent, preventing him from fully blending in with the background.
Which may be the point, given that Farrell is playing a curious stranger in a strange land—he’s trying to belong, and his failure to do so is his tragedy. There is no new world for John Smith, because the old one is remaking the new one and vice versa, continually tugging him back: Gatsby on a civilization scale. Except Gatsby was capital-T Tragic, and Fitzgerald skillfully built up a lasting image of a generation alongside his timeless exploration of wretched obsession and emptiness. Farrell’s Smith is less sympathetic, his glaring weaknesses lingered upon longer, positioned within history less as an icon of an age than an example of a time and place in almost unimaginable flux, where anything is possible, but less and less of it comes to pass. Leonard Foote sums this Smith up perfectly: “the uneasy balance of a man in awe of the paradise he’s corrupting.”
The key to Farrell’s presence here is the same as his work in Michael Mann’s all-surface (and God, so good) Miami Vice the following year: he’s no monologue and all facial features, first seen squinting at the sun like a newborn. He’s been brought over from Europe in chains, for the crime of talking too much, but the new world strips all “mutinous talk” from him, leaving him to wander among the trees—and eventually, the “naturals.” Farrell does, indeed, look goofy with his eyes wide open, staring up at the leaves and the sky—his acting is generally defined by a rigid brow, his eyes more often than not (as in Vice) covered by reflective shades. Farrell’s gruff persona, which we can only imagine defined Smith’s previous rebellious self, crumbles in the face of the green divine.
Or does it? The New World offers paradise to Smith, complete with serene days, dancing nights, and an adoring, beautiful princess. Yet Malick’s films are always in motion. Trees grow, water runs, and Smith is sent back home. The transition from his life in the trees to the gray, wretched mess that is colonial Jamestown is a visually shattering freefall, leaving Smith a ragged wreck caught between loyalties.
As I argued in a previous post, Smith’s shifting position within the colonial hierarchy is framed as a futile, boring detail by Malick, who keeps his attention elsewhere. Farrell, too, sends his eyes wandering, never able to devote his attention to the scheming and starvation that hold sway over Jamestown. The old world dragged him back to be Captain again (and President besides), but the new world has its own ineffable tug, and Farrell beautifully portrays a man with uneasy authority who simply cannot focus on what he’s supposed to care about. When he visits a native chief, Smith’s mind wanders from the man’s speech (which is not translated) to heartbreakingly quick images of Smith and his princess wandering through the seemingly endless woods. Malick cuts back to Farrell practically in tears, but the good Captain swallows his grief and regret and continues with the business at hand.
That, there, is the essence of Farrell’s uniquely beautiful performance: he registers vast, complex emotions as a series of breakdowns in daily life, turning from the camera in order to deliver his famous “no work, no eat!” speech, which appropriately feels rehearsed. In his wandering gait, flickering eyes, and moments of devastating stillness, Farrell conjures up years of emotional history even as his characterization evinces no traces of forced, “literary” development. Of course, this immersive approach has its universally renowned precedents, but where a stunning performance like DeNiro’s in Raging Bull stood unmistakably out from the screen, Farrell’s Smith lapses into The New World as a converted tabula rasa and slinks out a broken little man, humbled by the world. Yet to say that he’s only a minor concern in the film misses the craft of Malick and Farrell’s joint construction. Smith is The New World in microcosm—even as Q’Orianka Kilcher deservedly takes center stage, it’s Farrell whose awe, delight, uncertainty, and regret is mirrored in the film itself. (As The New World’s magisterial opening and glorious closing indicate, Kilcher instead transcends the world Malick has made for her.) When Smith sits alone in his room, torn, Malick fades out the sound. Farrell suddenly lunges forward in rage and despair, overturning his desk. Before it can even hit the ground, Malick cuts to black. Working together, actor and director create a lasting image, free of histrionics or cliché, equally dependent on both talents.
Smith ultimately chooses the easy way out, returning to England to begin yet another quest for the unknown. He steps into the film once more, visiting the married, famous princess at her English home with John Rolfe (Christian Bale). They wander the gardens, he following her as he used to, but out of obligation rather than curiosity; where once they literally named the universe to each other, now he babbles niceties, flinching as he hears his own falsities, but unable to stop himself.
She finally turns and asks, “Did you find your Indies, John?” He replies, “I may have sailed past them.” Indeed, that’s where both the movie and the man exist: caught between past and present, dream and memory, so that the endless stream of ostensibly “present” moments that make up the film become all the more vital, and mysterious. Next to that sublime perspective, Smith’s occasional lapse into certainty (“it was the only real truth”) is folly, but not mockingly so—Malick is contrasting one limited perspective with the range that a film can offer. That’s the place performance holds in a cinema like Malick’s, and it’s a vibrant one, if not traditionally dominant. Cinephiles should quit scoffing and start taking notes.