For some movie lovers, the burning question of 2010 is whether Terrence Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, will be released this year. Malick has released four feature films in the last 37 years, but he's picked up the pace lately. His first film, Badlands, appeared in 1973. I was first attracted to it by the juxtaposition of Carl Orff's music and a tale of a spree-killer and his girlfriend in 1950s America. It used to be on TV fairly frequently and I remember liking it whenever I saw it. Days of Heaven came out in 1978. I was less impressed by that one when I finally saw it but I admired the cinematography and the recreation of early 20th century rural America. Malick then fell silent for twenty years. He broke the silence with The Thin Red Line, the second film version of James Jones's novel. This promised to be an epic moment, especially since Steven Spielberg had already thrown down a mighty World War II film, Saving Private Ryan, earlier in 1998. I hastened to the multiplex for the opening weekend of Malick's film and was crushingly disappointed. It looked as nice as all his films, and I understood that he had different concerns on a different scale from Spielberg's. But as I saw it there had not been such an awkward juxtaposition of lofty ambition and crass commercialism since The Greatest Story Ever Told. Malick had loaded the film with major star cameos, some (like George Clooney's) of alarming brevity. Worse, he seemed more reliant on voiceovers than ever, and these internal monologues were often breathtakingly vapid. But many people revere the film, and not just as a club to beat Spielberg with. Some viewers were simply overwhelmed by the visuals, and others sympathized with what I took to be Malick's pantheistic "one big soul" worldview.
That's why it's taken me nearly five years to finally watch Malick's follow-up, which appeared a mere seven years later. It bombed at the Cannes Film Festival, as I recall, prompting Malick to cut The New World considerably for its general release. Both versions are now available, and I've seen the 135-minute version available from the local library. Bad memories of The Thin Red Line and my awareness of the later film's troubled production history kept me away. Worse, my friend Wendigo saw it on DVD several years ago and warned me away from it. After the fact, I asked him what he disliked. He answered that, to him, the film lacked narrative drive, while Malick seemed disinclined to advance the story through dialogue. He found the film's admittedly beautiful imagery repetitive, feeling that Malick, having made a point, would make it many times over to no greater effect. Worst of all, Colin Farrell starred in it.
On the other hand, I've learned that the movie-fan blogosphere has a higher opinion of The New World than the general pubic. It's expected to rank very high in the Wonders in the Dark poll of the decade's best films, while Dave at the highly reputable Goodfella's Movie Blog has named it as both the best film of 2005 and the entire decade. Meanwhile, I stumbled across a cable showing of the film while channel surfing last year, and I saw a battle scene that actually impressed me. I stuck with the film long enough to decide to break off so I could later watch the film in full. My mixed feelings delayed that moment a while more, but I took the plunge at last this weekend.
Afterward, when I talked to Wendigo, I told him he had better steer as far away from The Thin Red Line as possible, because if he hated The New World as much as he did, then the earlier film might kill him. That's my roundabout way of saying that I judged The New World a much better film than the previous Malick.
Sounds bad, huh? For me it was as long as it focused on Farrell. Fortunately, the focus begins to shift, and for the second half of the film Pocahantas becomes the main character. This wasn't necessarily a promising development, since Q'Orianka Kilcher played the princess early on as if directed by D.W. Griffith rather than Terrence Malick, all sickly-sweet innocence and sweeping gestures. Gradually, however, I began to get it. We'd been seeing her, and the land, through Smith's eyes, and Smith, it became clear, had an unrealistically utopian idea of the new world and the Powhatan people. "Real, what I thought a dream," is how he describes it, but Malick, I think, is saying he's still living a dream. The Powhatans are not quite as benign as he thinks, and to the extent that Pocahantas is that benign she suffers for it at her people's hands. Her charity toward the desperate Jamestown colonists leads to her exile from her father's realm. It's then time for her discovery of a new world, not only the Jamestown fort but England itself, where she's received as a princess. In a mirror of Smith's adventure, she's bedazzled by the splendours of the royal court, while in a poignant counterpoint Wes Studi as an ambassador pensively inspects the majestically developed landscape for signs of the English God. The irony of the picture is that Pocahantas, her privileged position notwithstanding, seems more capable of accommodating the intersection of two worlds than Smith is in his perpetual search for the Indies of his ideal. When they meet once more in England, you can tell she still loves the lug despite her feelings for Rolfe (Christian Bale), yet for all that she remains a childish wonderstruck flibbertigibbet you can see that she's matured in a way that Smith hasn't and maybe never will. At the same time, you can't help thinking of how Shakespeare might answer her wonder at a new world and its people -- "Tis new to thee."
The New World looks like no other movie I've seen. I haven't seen so many following shots with character's backs to the camera in a single film, and Malick gets away with it. They give the film something like a three-dimensional quality that might again render Avatar superfluous. I can understand why some people might recommend it simply as a pictorial marvel. At the same time, I can understand criticisms from Wendigo and others. Malick's reiterative approach can easily become either repetitive or redundant; it's the risk he takes by making his film a visual tone poem rather than a novelistic or dramatic narrative. Losing patience with this film is no crime. Furthermore, Farrell is dreadful, though I don't know whether I object more to his performance or the concept of John Smith that Malick directed him to enact. I can't call The New World the best of anything as long as he's in it, though Lubezki deserved every award he could have gotten, but I think I can recommend it to those cinemaesthetes for whom the sensory experience is the main reason they go to movies.
The trailer, uploaded to YouTube by romnitjej, may give you some idea of the visual experience.