That Terrence Malick is an enigma need not be overstated. Much has been made and speculated over regarding the director’s almost J.D. Saliger-like reclusiveness and the notoriously mysterious twenty year gap between his second and third films–a gap which, thankfully, appears to be quickly dropping between successive films. Currently, with only six completed films to his credit in a forty year career, he has consistently been pointed to as the kind of filmmaker who seems to embody the adage of quality over quantity. For the critic, however, if nothing else, the gaps between films allows for them to be categorized neatly into groups of two: there is the photographic brilliance, and the innocent, blue collar poetry of his first two films (Badlands and Days of Heaven); there is the mature, transcendent revisionism of his middle two historic epics (The Thin Red Line and The New World); and finally the cosmic-as-personal Christianity of his most recent films (Tree of Life and To the Wonder). Above all, however, Terrence Malick is a poet working in a medium whose audience often tends to shun unfamiliar forms of expression. And it is his poetic instincts which are simultaneously his greatest strength (and legacy to the artform) as well as potentially the very characteristics which can get him into trouble.
Pauline Kael once described Days of Heaven as an “epic pastiche” with too many ideas that don’t grow out of anything organic, and described it as “an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphor’s on it.” While I’m not convinced she was right about the film (Days of Heaven remains a personal favorite of mine), Kael was always a challenger of prevailing notions. I do, however, understand her inclination, which has been periodically leveled against several of his films. Poetry, and in particular visual poetry, without discipline can far too easily become mindless ambiguity: form without substance.
Though not necessarily my very favorite of his films, in some ways, The New World represents the apotheosis of Malick’s art–both grounded to narrative just enough so as not to distance a more casual audience, while still maintaining the lyrical grandeur one has come to expect from his films, achieving the kind of organic representation that Kael felt was lacking in his earlier work. I write here about the primary, theatrical version of film rather than 2 1/2 hour Academy cut which was released briefly in late 2005 (sadly, I didn’t get to see this version), or the nearly 3 hour director’s cut released on DVD and BluRay (which I also own, but find to be unnecessarily indulgent). The New World might best be viewed as a creation myth. But unlike the creation story at the center of his Tree of Life, this creation story is less concerned with the origins of the universe than the origins of man–or, if you prefer, the origins of a nation. Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell in perhaps his best role to date) and Pocahontas (first-timer Q’orianka Kilcher in a revelatory, under-recognized performance) are the new Adam and the new Eve of the Edenic American continent circa 1607. And like the biblical Eden, it is sin which brings about the fall of this new Paradise.
The opening scenes of English ships arriving at the shores of Virginia set to the introduction of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold opera, are are among the most captivating scenes from any film in the last decade and immediately set the tone for things to come. In a film filled with contrasts and juxtapositions, perhaps the most startling early on is that of the English in their bulky, metal armor and the Natives in their buckskin. The cautious, early interactions between the two cultures breeds suspicion and unease on both sides.
At times, the film somewhat over-idealizes the way of life of the Natives–Smith’s narration suggests that they have no concept of greed, deceit, or even forgiveness, a notion contradicted by Pocahontas’ pleading with her kingly father for forgiveness, as well as the tribe’s proficiency with weapons and military strength–but thankfully, it never quite reaches the simplistic level of Indians=good, Europeans=bad. Instead, Malick’s humanism reaches far deeper than that, uncovering the complexities of colonial contact. As one critic pointed out, “He (Malick) creates uncanny, expressive imagery, such as a pair of hands, turned outward from a praying position so that they are cupped, to scoop a clam out of the fecund sea. It is an image of promise, yet both the pearl and the plundering are implicit.” Indeed, for that is the double-sided story of The New World and of America herself–a land in many ways destroyed in order to make way for the promise of hope, opportunity, and new beginnings.
Nevertheless, like a story by Emerson or Thoreau, the film finds tragedy in man’s estrangement from his environment, and peculiarity in his desire to reshape nature as represented in a scene where an Indian stares perplexed at a meticulously manicured English garden late in the film. The beauty of nature vs. the encroachment of civilization is a common theme throughout Malick’s work. As with the clam in the sea, the sets of hands, so often seen outstretched to heaven throughout the film, suggest it might be a kind of prayer: a prayer of thanks for the beauty that surrounds us, and a prayer of repentance for the destruction we have wrought.
Simultaneously more optimistic than The Thin Red Line and more focused and disciplined than Tree of Life (the films which immediately preceded and followed this one), The New World ultimately succeeds through the character of Pocahontas whose strong will and open heart finds peace through sacrifice. And fittingly, it is images of resurrection which dominate the film’s rapturous finalé, confirming that only through destruction can there be rejuvenation, and only through death can one find life everlasting. It is here that the ambiguous mysticism of her elliptical narration becomes solid and takes form, how the word is made flesh. Though her chiefly father may have been just in distrusting the Europeans, it is her compassion which transcends justice and finds grace.