This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!
For all its retrospective acclaim, The New World is still seen as sort of a forgotten middle child in Terrence Malick’s career. It doesn’t have the hefty cultural cache of his first three films, nor the divisive experimental fervor of his last couple. In some ways, it’s the quintessential Malick work, even moreso than The Tree of Life. It represents the complete maturation of his early style, before he broke off into more avant garde filmmaking. It may be often highly ranked on lists of Malick’s filmography, but it’s tragically underdiscussed.
I was asked to watch the extended cut of the film by the patron who made the request. I’d never seen it before, and I think the film works much better at this length. This is a film to lose yourself in. You need to let it completely absorb you. A three-hour runtime allows for a dreamier drifting pace. It takes the pressure off of certain scenes and lets them run for as long as they need. I’m not sure of all the additions as I haven’t seen the original cut in a long time, but it certainly felt like the movie had more room to breathe in key sequences. There are long stretches with almost no spoken dialogue, only the typical mumbled narration.
I do want to talk briefly about the narration, which is perhaps Malick’s most consistent element. What I like about it here is how it seems to recede into the back of the sound mix. It’s not overpowering like narration is traditionally supposed to be. It fades into the background and becomes hard to make out. It’s like the characters are in the room with you rather than on screen, whispering in your ear. It almost becomes part of the score rather than part of the script, a hushed melody of words which you’re not meant to make out at all. When characters started to speak on-screen again I was always a little surprised. It made me long for a return to those moments of peace and simplicity, but of course taking us out of those moments is exactly the point. Malick draws a deliberate contrast and engineers that desire for return.
What’s interesting is that for as languid as the film’s pace can be, its editing is anything but. Cuts are fragmented and unstable, giving the film an alienating and disturbed feeling. A single close-up will be stitched together from several different takes, turning a consistent image into something much more disorienting. It’s an aspect of Malick’s style that’s sometimes forgotten. For as floaty and dreamlike as his films can be, he can just as easily invert this and become disaffected and discomposed.
This concerned me early on in this revisit as it concerns the Native American characters. Malick’s style as applied to them makes them seem alien and exotic in a disappointing but all too familiar way. It’s how Hollywood has treated them since the invention of the medium. Ultimately, however, I think Malick treats them with as much humanity and dignity as any of the white characters, who also are filmed and edited with that trademark slightly surreal style. After all, the title of the film ends up referring not to the pre-colonial America, but to England as experienced by Pocahontas. It’s their world that is depicted as strange and unfamiliar, with America depicted as a sort of hazy middle ground, at once a comfortable home for the Native Americans and a harsh and unforgiving territory for the colonists. Ultimately, though, I’m not qualified to say whether or not The New World depicts Native Americans respectfully.
All in all, I think The New World is one of Malick’s best films. It’s much improved by this longer cut. It makes me curious to see the longer rework of The Tree of Life he recently did for that film’s Criterion Collection release. I think it might also benefit from some more breathing room. It also made me wonder if maybe Malick should start taking longer breaks between movies again. If the result is something as sweeping as The New World, it’ll be worth the wait.