ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I have never truly been the man I seem to you to be."
The New World is Pocahontas for grown-ups.
What I love most about Terrence Malick—even more than his beautiful imagery and visual compositions—is his editing. His unconventional Kuleshov-inspired technique in Days of Heaven had me yearning for my film school days, and with The New World he continues to impress.
Malick is notoriously meticulous with his editing, often recutting his films right up to their release, and this is no exception. A 150-minute cut was shown early in order for the film to quality for Oscar contention, but by the time it received a wide, theatrical release it had been trimmed down to 135 minutes. When the film finally made it to home video, an additional 172-minute cut was released. This is the version I watched, although I also examined the theatrical 135-minute cut out of curiosity (I watched the first hour and skimmed the rest) and generally found it less compelling.
At its basics, editing is not as much about pacing a story as it is about simply putting different ideas next to each other and seeing how they interact. At a narrative level this leads to things like cutting on action: somebody gets in a car and drives off screen, and when the film cuts to them arriving somewhere else we don't assume they've driven through a magic portal. But at the thematic level it gets much more interesting. In The New World, Malick utilizes a variety of small touches in his editing to make it stand out artistically (jumpy cuts, voiceover interwoven with dialogue), but he also uses this technique on a wider scale to contrast society with human nature.
The first half of the film can be broken up into three parts: the colonists arrive at the new world and begin to build their colony; Captain Smith attempts to make contact with the natives and is taken captive; and Smith returns to the now fully constructed colony.
In the first part, we see the violence of the colonists. Christopher Plummer threatens to whip anyone who doesn't work hard. A man kills a native for taking something of his without asking. These are not nice people. In the second part, we see the gentle innocence of the natives. Smith is taken in despite being an intruder. He teaches Pocahontas English and the natives teach him their customs. They give to him without expecting anything in return. These are very nice people.
Then in the third part, Smith goes back to the colony (which can now be more accurately described as a fortress) and the contrast is almost unbearable. The little children chatter incessantly about nothing important. The men shoot each other with little or no provocation. They eat each other when they run out of food. These are not civilized people; these are the savages we think about when we think about humanity outside of society. But here Malick reverses the traditional dichotomy and shows that only within society do we truly become barbarians.
The New World is one of Terrence Malick's most divisive films—second only to To The Wonder—and it's not difficult to see why. Like Days of Heaven it's easy to interpret as style over substance, and unlike Days of Heaven it's not something we haven't seen before. It showcases Malick the way his fans love him and the way his critics hate him: we see the beautiful impressionism of his style alongside the lack of introspection in his character development. How do we synthesize these two contrasting positions?
As someone unafraid to embrace style over substance (or style as substance) it's probably no surprise to anyone that I'm beginning to fall in love with Malick as much as I am, but as easy as it would be to talk about his incredible visual direction or Emmanuel Lubezki's beautiful photography, I think those are points on which we can all basically agree. Whether or not you personally enjoy his style, we can all agree that it's distinct to him or we wouldn't be having this conversation.
I'm more interested in looking at his characters, because I don't think they're as flat or simple as his detractors would have you believe. I think he just talks about them differently than most other directors.
Characters are ultimately composed of a series of decisions. They're confronted with a conflict, and the way they solve it results from who they are as a person—and in turn creates an idea of who they are in our minds. But since you only have so much time in a movie, most directors use shortcuts—whether it's characters talking about themselves, or other characters talking about them, or flashbacks to important points in their life. However, as useful as these moments are, they also have an added dimension of "talking to the audience" that makes them stand out as artificial, even if it doesn't feel fake because we're so used to it.
For me, the difference with Malick is that he lacks these artificially purposeful scenes. We still see his characters making decisions, but nobody's telling us why they're doing it. Captain Smith leaves his lover's forest paradise for the devastated hell-hole of the Virginia colony and we're never quite sure why, but this is a decision that fundamentally informs the foundation of his character. It extends both to the beginning of the film when he abandons his men for the sanctuary of the forest and to the end when he returns and Pocahontas finally sees through him. It seems to begin even before the movie starts, as we initially meet Smith in a prison cell. He is not as honorable or trustworthy as he seems, and this fact develops slowly and deliberately over the course of the narrative.
But there are reasons he gains others' trust so easily. He's affectionate and hard working, even if his idealism and his fantasy of a better life get in the way of his ability to connect with other people. This is why Pocahontas falls in love with him to begin with and why he's such a successful leader (when he's not being imprisoned for mutiny). But then Malick contrasts him with John Rolfe, who is as affectionate and hard-working as Captain Smith but without his distrustful underside. We see what Smith could be if he weren't so concerned with always changing the status quo.
This is what I find fascinating about his characters, at least.
One last thing that impressed me about The Thin Red Line and continues to bowl me over with The New World is Malick's strict adherence to verisimilitude. Whether or not the film is historically accurate (I'm no historian, I wouldn't know), it creates an incredibly immersive world by abstaining as much as possible from artificial effects or visual tricks.
The very idea of special effects in a Terrence Malick film sounds laughable, but if the same film were made by just about anyone else (except maybe Werner Herzog) you'd immediately be able to tell the difference. Even something as simple as the natives watching the colonists' boats come into shore would be shot on green screen to save money. Everybody else is doing it, after all, so why not? Because when you don't it becomes a world in which you can really lose yourself.
That's all I've got for now. Sorry I don't have any good "big picture" things to say about the film. I love it. It's my least favorite film from Malick so far and it still easily makes it into my favorite new discoveries for this year.