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The New World & Ask the Dust
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Review Date: 3
.20.06

It seems obvious that the director of a film would have a substantial role in shaping the performance of an actor. But I’d never thought much about it until, on the same day last week, I watched Colin Farrell in two films – The New World  and  Ask The Dust.
    
In the opening scenes of The New World, as if Farrell’s name were a pun, we see him
caged in the hold of a ship, and he does look a bit wild in the eye. A few minutes later, a three ship flotilla has cast anchor and the crews have made it ashore. At a discrete distance, this Caucasian invasion has been observed by the indigenous people, among whom is the 12 year old Pocahontas. Next we see Farrell’s character, John Smith, standing on a makeshift gallows, a noose around his neck. But the leader of the expedition, Captain Newport, decides to pardon Smith, probably reasoning that every man in this strange new world will be necessary if the expedition is to succeed. After the pardon, the camera lingers for several seconds on Farrell’s face. He’s wearing an impish grin. It’s just about the last one we’ll see in The New World.
    
And I’m getting to my point here about how a director shapes an actor’s performance. Though Farrell’s John Smith, leader of men and master of hostile environments, now finds himself in the strangest circumstances of his life, charged with assuring the survival of the Jamestown settlers, he spends most of the rest of the film with a look that ranges narrowly from bewilderment to angst. Here he is, one of the first Europeans on the North American continent, and virtually all of his attention seems turned inward. Where one might expect him to be constantly on the qui vive, alert and focused on the mysteries of the vast new exterior world, his visage indicates that he’s lost in interior speculation.
    
As beautiful to watch, to simply feast one’s eyes on, as The New World is, Farrell’s performance renders the film unbelievable. And I ascribe this difficulty not to Farrell, but to the director, Terrence Malick. Clearly, Farrell was instructed to affect this pose. His performance isn’t the only reason I have problems with The New World, but it’s the major one. Still, I don’t want to dissuade you from seeing the movie. It’s a spectacle,
and in many ways glorious.  And if for no other reason, The New World is worth watching for the performance of the young woman who plays Pocahontas. Her unforgettable face barely contains a hugely magnetic life force. Terrence Malick’s vision may not hold up, but The New World merits a look.
    
I have adduced no evidence for my claim that Malick is responsible for Colin Farrell’s odd performance in The New World. But the coincidence of having watched, on the same day, Farrell as the lead in Robert Towne’s new film, Ask The Dust, convinces me that Farrell’s skills are broader than those he displays in Malick’s film.
    
In Ask The Dust, Farrell plays a young writer who’s come to the city of dreams, Los Angeles, to make it big. The still new nation is in the throes of The Great Depression. Thus the gap between expectations and reality is writ large in the background and in the person of Arturo Bandini, the young writer with large ambitions. Farrell acquits himself well as a wanna be lothario who hides his inexperience with women behind a façade of tough guy wit. He meets his match in a wonderful performance by Salma Hayek as an illiterate but savvy immigrant waitress. Ultimately, what makes Ask The Dust worth watching is good writing. Robert Towne’s talent as a writer exceeds his prowess as a director, but even so, Ask The Dust is a very attractive failure. Take a chance.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.