The Criterion Collection Review | The New World
N.B. There are three different official cuts of Terrence Malick’s The New World. The first cut, when it was initially released in theaters for a limited run on Christmas Day 2005, it ran 150 minutes. Upon its wide release in early 2006, it was shaved down to a sleeker 135 minutes. Its first home video edition a few years later expanded it to a full 170 minutes. The new edition of the film, now available on a Criterion Blu-ray contains all three versions. This is a review of the 170-minute version.
A wide open field of bright green reeds. The sun is filtered evenly across the untouched landscape by a textured haze that hangs overhead like a casually floating god. The rain beats gently on our shoulders, warm and inviting, touching your skin and inviting you to join in the great commune of humankind with its Mother. The world, in no uncertain terms, is a beautiful place.
Terrence Malick is communicating something profound to us. He is a filmmaker who is so very moved by the enormity, the ecstatic beauty, and the overwhelming electric purity of the natural world that his films practically read as theology. One can look at a film like his towering 2005 work The New World and easily see a gorgeous parable about a pure land being slowly and tragically diminished by the insertion of greed and ignorance into it. But one can just as easily see Malick making a small but utterly sincere, pantheistic prayer.
The New World tells the story of John Smith (Colin Farrell, at his hunkiest) who lands, imprisoned, on the shores the land that would eventually be called America. These Europeans – guided by Christopher Plummer – don’t know anything about this new land, except that they need to rest from a long journey. They are taken by the wonder of the place, but do not know how to survive there. They are occasionally guided, but usually just observed, by the confused and intrigued natives – called “naturals” in the film. While the eventual outcome of these encounters is well-known to American audiences – oh, the fun of early U.S. history! – the filmmakers are very wise to make this New World, and the people in it, seem untouched, immediate, and present. There may be a small amount of cultural foreboding, but it is heard distantly, like an echo of lamentation.
Eventually, Smith separates from the Europeans, and lives for an unnamed period with the naturals, eventually falling in… if not love, then a certain curious regard… with the young unnamed Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher, amazing), and learning that the naturals are well-rounded people who laugh, gossip, work hard, get frustrated, and actually contain human emotions. But eventually Smith fades from the story, and we turn our attentions to this boldly intelligent young woman from the New World. Eventually, we see – through a gentle series of complex events – how she goes from a strong and inquisitive person into something hardened.
However idealized the beautiful landscape – photographed into the stratosphere, using only natural light, by Emmanuel Lubezki – the people in it are freed from their elementary school classroom romance. They are as complex and as interesting as any human being. These are not beatific noble natives as so often seen in stories of this period. Malick wants nothing more than emotional honesty. Malick is not mining history for melodrama – why cheapen things? – but for what the actual visceral experience of living that history must have been like. Malick deals with visceral images to communicate both time and heart: water on your skin, cold European rooms, hazy muddy fields, but he is getting at a deep philosophical truth about the way history moves, and the way our emotions can serve as the fulcrum of world-changing events.
Much of The New World feels like a gentle, meditative opera. The music, by James Horner, persistently hangs over the movie like the aforementioned haze, coloring everything with a near-holy aural light. This is not so much a story – which would imply cognition, structure, and blunt intellect – as a musical and emotional musing on well-known events of the past. This is a film of the soul, not of the mind.
Some have accused The New World of being so colossally Olympian that it beings to come across as a proclamation rather than something more down-to-earth and relatable. This is certainly truer of the 170-minute version than it is of the 150-minute version I had previously seen. The longer cut seems to incorporate more historical detail, giving the period such a degree of obsessive reverence that impatient audience members may be moved to immature titters. I, however, appreciate the breathing room those extra 20 minutes gave. They allow the movie to move even more casually across its gorgeous land, eventually leading sharply into the cold, small rooms of England.
The New World is not Malick’s masterpiece – that would be The Tree of Life – but it does mark a change in Malick’s work from halcyon romance to the downright Edenic. This is where his ambition knob began to turn toward the heavens. It is astonishing.
Top Image: New Line Cinema
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.