The New World opened briefly in New York and Los Angeles last month to qualify for awards consideration. But between then and its national release now, World creator Terrence Malick has trimmed some 15 minutes for what publicists have positioned as the movie’s ”theatrical” version (135 minutes), as opposed to the ”Academy” version (150 minutes). Position away, O ye spinners: The good news for all who are not awards voters is that this newer, shorter World — shorter, anyway, in the category of languid movies over two hours — is that it communicates Malick’s luminous artistic vision of innocence and loss, wildness and order, risks taken and chances lost, with more clarity than his first cut.
Many of us would follow the filmmaker of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line anywhere, standing patiently by (even if our attention drifts) while he scans the horizon with his artist’s spyglass. Now we can add this magnificent (and magnificently flawed) specimen to a prized collection of Malick movies that explore what it means to be an American. We can also discuss, all over again, whether an artist’s work is ever done.
The uncharted land of possibility and danger on which the filmmaker meditates is Jamestown, Va., first discovered by English explorers in 1607 but long familiar to the indigenous people — the Europeans called them ”Naturals” — hunting, farming, and thriving there. It’s on this stretch of what feels like Eden to tired men clad in cumbersome armor — the water full of fish, the earth fertile with corn — that John Smith (Colin Farrell) lands in chains, a rebellious soldier of fortune awaiting hanging for insubordination to his commander (Christopher Plummer). It’s also in this uncharted terra that Smith is pardoned, given a second chance in a new climate, and dispatched to meet with the ruling chieftain, Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and negotiate for supplies.
For Smith, remarking to himself in an internal, diarylike voice-over — as much an identifiable characteristic of Malick’s gloriously stubborn, personal, sensual filmmaking style as the sight of leaves blowing in the wind — dazzling newness abounds: He thinks Powhatan’s entrancing teenage daughter (Q’orianka Kilcher), noticed frolicking with her brother in the tall grass, is the most bewitching vision of untamed loveliness he has ever seen. The New World never mentions her name, but history knows the girl as Pocahontas.
Of course, to this entrancingly guileless young woman (Kilcher, 14 years old at her debut performance, appears herself to be a self-possessed young woman of ravishing beauty and openness), her own people are as familiar as the old sun and moon while it’s Smith who twinkles like a new star. Out of such elemental attraction, cross-cultural bonding, and heartbreaking complication comes a love story with consequences that stand for civilization and its discontents as well. Out of Pocahontas’ eventual marriage to the kind, widowed Englishman John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and the unpredictability with which she chooses whether to wear shoes like a proper lady or go barefoot like a sprite, comes a fresh new definition of early America.
Many have tried, but none can match Malick’s touch for shuffling a deck of elegiac images (water/sky/clouds/rain) and fanning out the hand to express what speech cannot; he’s a master, too, of incorporating sound that is often wordless but never empty. (As Old World civilization sails into the harbor of the new, Malick hears the horns of Wagner’s Das Rheingold; when Smith and Pocahontas explore one another, the movie does for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 what Elvira Madigan did for his Piano Concerto No. 21.) Still, with storytelling so tremulous and impressionistic, 5 or 10 seconds trimmed from this scene and that accrue to shake out big wrinkles in narrative time. What’s fascinating about the ”theatrical” New World is that I can feel but not see a difference between one version and the other, with no sense of Malickian languor lost.
Farrell, a vibrant, substantive actor with eyes unfazed by silence, is given plenty of space to establish his Smith as a man not equipped, despite all his sensitivity, for greatness in love or exploit; contrasted against such moodiness, Bale creates a man whose patience is as attractive as Smith’s passion. Malick presents the Native Americans with a deep feeling for their majesty as well as for their fearsome mystery in the eyes of the new visitors. This map feels righter and more in perspective than that of the first I saw just weeks ago. But wait: Malick has announced he’ll release an even longer, three-hour cut on DVD. Having laid eyes on this brave New World, it’s here I’ll stay.