With The New World, his fourth movie in 32 years, Terrence Malick means to create a portrait of an idyllic beauty lost to us forever—and now, thanks to Malick's inability to stop futzing with his picture, so, perforce, must I. Two decades of inactivity and legend-building won't help to make you more decisive, it seems. Malick's previous effort, The Thin Red Line, took years to complete, and though the finished film runs nearly three hours, rumor has it that Malick could construct an entirely separate feature-length movie from all the footage left on the cutting-room floor. And while The New World opened in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, in a cut running about two-and-a-half hours, that version of the film was pulled less than two weeks later, to be replaced on Friday, nationwide, by another version, some 16 minutes shorter. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend a screening of The Even Newer World, which effectively means that I'm reviewing a film that no longer exists.
Still, one can assume that the overall shape and purpose of The New World remain largely intact. Colin Farrell no doubt still exudes earthy forthrightness as Captain John Smith, who arrives in 1607 on the shore of what will eventually become Virginia, leads an expedition inland in search of food and potential trading opportunities with "the naturals," and winds up saved from summary execution by a beautiful young woman (Q'orianka Kilcher) to whom, pointedly, the film never once refers as Pocahontas. (Malick may have feared that the name would inspire instant narcolepsy in anybody who ever attended grade school.) I'm guessing that their historically dubious and frankly kind of creepy romance—Pocahontas was perhaps 11 or 12—is still depicted here as goofy, innocent bliss; furthermore, something tells me that the meeting of these two antipodal civilizations isn't suddenly going to result in peaceful coexistence. In short, it's the Jamestown story, as told in Malick's distinctively lyrical idiom.
Talking about the movie's strengths is a tricky proposition, because I'm not sure to what extent they remain intact. For me, the most impressive part of TNW 1.0 consisted of roughly the first 45 minutes, which possessed a strange, incantatory rhythm utterly unlike that of conventional epic filmmaking. Eschewing dialogue whenever possible, skipping wantonly from one oddly truncated scene to the next, never showing something directly if an oblique glimpse might possibly suffice, Malick succeeds—or at least succeeded—in making the arrival of Europeans on this continent feel nearly as disorienting to us as it must have to the Powhatan. Thing is, though, I've heard that this is the section of the film that's undergone the most extensive revision. Not surprising, really—Malick's approach in the early scenes bordered on the avant-garde and would likely have made the average viewer restless. But in the quest for greater accessibility, I fear that some of The New World's eerie beauty may have been lost.
That said, even the original, arty version wasn't entirely satisfying, For one thing, while Malick continues to distrust spoken dialogue, he remains bizarrely enamored of interior monologue; both Smith and Pocahontas spend much of the film reciting purple love poetry—for each other, for the land itself—that sounds like warmed-over Kahlil Gibran. (I'm told that the new cut features less of this.) And when Malick finally does make a token effort at conventional narrative, he finds himself stymied, as many filmmakers do, by the need to hew to historical fact. No dramatist attempting to create a compelling story from scratch would introduce John Rolfe (Christian Bale) as a rival love interest in the final half hour—but that's what actually happened, of course, and so suddenly Pocahontas is being courted by Batman. Her cultural appropriation by the English, meanwhile, comes across here more as a curious footnote than as the culmination of the film's thematic journey. Except now I hear the new cut focuses more on Pocahontas, so maybe that's been strengthened.
Beats me. I can only report from the old world, now crushed beneath the wheels of progress.