I've been disappointed to hear about the possibility that The New World's DVD release will not feature Malick's longer cut. Not sure how seriously we can take these rumors, because all logic points to this being a no-brainer - but alas, logic doesn't always enter into it, and perhaps the studio didn't feel like accomodating Malick. The film's virtual shut-out at the Oscars this year is a crying shame (even if many of the other films competing can be considered at least worthy, for once), if not a big surprise.
It's a beautiful film on so many levels, but it's also an odd one - particularly for those moviegoers not familiar with the director's other work, expecting perhaps an historical drama or even epic, more along the lines of Hollywood's recent forays into that arena, the Troys, Alexanders, Kingdom of Heavens of the world, or even back to other Americana like Dances With Wolves or (gack) bloodthirsty nonsense like The Patriot. The film isn't plot-less but is certainly not plot driven. It's lyrical, it's sometimes tangential, it has Malick's usual multiple-character voice-overs (which is probably a double no-no to the Robert McKee's of the world): in short it's an epic art film.
But it's also one of the few accurate depictions of pre-revolutionary America. It gets Williamsburg entirely right - from what I've read and seen about it, right on up to a National Geographic piece on a recent excavation of the site. As atrocious as the behavior was of some of the newcomers, you understand it a bit more, and even understand why the first to land there didn't do very well. The film gives one the feeling that these people were sent there essentially as guinea pigs; they weren't prepared, they didn't have enough competent carpenters or farmers or anything useful to develop a new land. They were scared, and sick. The film gets this right.
And of course the depiction of the natives is beautifully rendered (Q'orianka Kilcher is stunning in the lead, though Malick's camera seems to love her a little too much) and if there's a more stunning opening 15 minutes in cinema in the last few years - climaxed with the natives first probing encounter with the whites - I'm at a loss to name it. It about melted my heart.
The only critiques I have of the film are not wholly unexpected; I had some similar ones of Malick's previous near-masterpiece, The Thin Red Line:
- While the editing in some places is purposely jumpy, even surreal, often to interesting effects, at other times it seems more clumsy, the likely result of the pressure to cut the film down to a more manageable running time. Whatever the reason, a few of the characters seem underrepresented (again, I had the same feeling with Thin Red Line), but perhaps this was also due to my own heightened expectations based on the actors playing the roles. When I see David Thewlis, Noah Taylor, Ben Chaplin and other fine actors, I expect to see them given something to do, or at least more than a few very brief scenes. This may also be the result of excellent actors wanting desperately to work with Malick and agreeing to what had always been intended to be marginal supporting roles. Still, the editing also errs at times in storytelling - as in the moment when (David Thewlis' character) shoots a man in Williamsburg for mutiny, and then John Smith presumably kills Thewlis then and there. I say presumably because the moment itself is missing. We just see Thewlis lying on the ground, and someone pronouncing him dead.
- There's also, not atypical of Malick, either, a lack of actual conversation between characters. One person talks, the other listens, looks off wistfully, etc. Or no one speaks and there's voice-over to listen to. Likely another reason not everyone's taken with the film. That isn't really Malick's strength. What IS his strength is his mastery of cinema itself, the compositions, the depictions of nature and the way man either merges with it or butts up against it. This, and the historic recreation, and the compassion for humanity even at its lowest moments, is the true spine of the film.
And: I've sometimes been critical of James Horner's more Hollywood-ish scores, but his score here is perfect - both in original compositions and in the choice of existing pieces (including Mozart's lovely concerto no. 23).
By the way, Mix magazine had an interesting article about the movie's sound. Definitely check it out.
The quibbles aside, I think the film's a stunning achievement. Images from The New World have stayed with me in these two weeks since I've seen it. Malick composes a film, as one of the few true poets of the form working today, and as an artist the thought of studio suits have anything to do with the final result on screen is a little sad. But they pay for it so it's the price of it all. Still, what we have, whether in the choppy version or perhaps even more so in whatever longer version Malick really wanted to show us all, is art.