Director Terrence Malick’s debut feature, Badlands, saw its main characters gaze out on the endless expanse of a long-conquered America and chafe at the limitations embedded in the open space, driven by uncontrollable impulses to lash out at these boundaries. The New World, arguably the dividing line between the filmmaker’s early career and the increasingly abstract esoterica of his 21st-century prolificacy, inverts that dynamic. The film arrives on the shores of Virginia at the dawn of England’s colonial interest in the country, and the thick, untamed forests and fields of knee-high grass overwhelm its own lovebirds with endless possibility.
Appropriately, the film approaches the legendary romance between explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the Native American Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) in mythic terms, employing Malick’s elliptical style to isolate the pair into tableaux of intimacy. Like the couple at the heart of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Smith and Pocahontas are endlessly mutable, and they come to stand in not only for their own legend, but famous couples across folklore and history. An early interaction of the two teaching each other words in their languages with mime is so elemental a display of man and woman meeting that the two recall Adam and Eve. Elsewhere, they also resemble Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers on either side of a deep schism that results in mistrust and violence as a matter of course. Smith first meets Pocahontas when she intercedes to stop his execution on the orders of her chieftain father (August Schellenberg), and his own comrades glibly break the tenuous peace with the natives at every turn. Later, they even regard Smith as a race traitor, subjecting him to hostility for his affection for the Powhatan.
The subtle build-up of these conflicts doesn’t ground The New World’s lofty romanticism, but it does complicate Smith and Pocahontas’s strange union. It’s telling that the first thing we see the British erect upon landing isn’t shelter, but a noose, and for all the paranoia the British feel toward the Powhatan, it’s the Westerners who resort to barbarism, torture, and cannibalism as starvation and fear of the unknown overtake them. By the same token, the natives aren’t so simple and saintly as they seem. The film’s first half, positioned primarily from Smith’s perspective, overflows not only with brilliantly lit images and boosted colors, but the purple prose of Smith’s narration, which contains observations about the Powhatan, such as their lack of possessions. Yet he says this after the audience has already seen meetings where the tribe discusses how best to repel the invaders to protect their territory, exposing his reveries as self-invented.
If the couple’s relationship is a figurative illustration of the potential cooperation between the indigenous people and the English explorers, the brutal warfare that firmly divides the two camps naturally affects the romance as well. As rapturous as the film’s imagery is, it slowly curdles as the English starve and the Powhatan pick off stragglers. The verdant imagery of untrampled grass becomes the barren mud of Jamestown, and Pocahontas herself, aligned through editing with the world around her, is gradually cocooned in stark close-ups as the English exploit and eventually claim her. The story shifts from Smith to Pocahontas when the latter begins to distance himself physically and emotionally from her; Smith leaves the colony half-convinced that he merely lived a dream while in America, while Pocahontas is left to the budding nightmare of her effective captivity.
The incremental death of the princess’s soul marks the greatest sustained act of tragedy in Malick’s filmography. The loose approach to narrative cohesion results in major plot points that pass by in flashes, like Pocahontas’s marriage to tobacco farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and news of Smith’s death—indicative of how far her life has spun out of her control. Corsets and textbooks become weapons as much as cannons and muskets, and by the time Pocahontas arrives in London as a curio to raise interest in the colony, the once unbound young woman seems no different than a caged animal. The only liberation from this life is death, which Malick films with brio, charting the transmigration of the woman’s soul back to her home with the aid of Wagner and a barrage of ecstatic imagery. It remains the single greatest sequence of Malick’s career, and the apotheosis of the film’s seamless fusion of history, myth, and individual expression.
Released once before on Blu-ray, the extended cut of The New World nonetheless looks significantly improved thanks to Criterion’s 4K restoration. Infamously shot around the whims of its maker’s minutely obsessed eye, the film derives much of its power from nearly imperceptible fluctuations of light and color, and never before has a home-video release so thoroughly captured the way that sunlight reflects off of John Smith’s boiled leather jacket, or how multivalent the greens of swamp reeds and coniferous trees can be. Textures are flawlessly rendered, maximizing the film’s tactile sensory overload, and some shots look, in motion, as if the camera were completely stripped away and you were simply standing there with the characters. Both the original cut and its subsequent 130-minute wide-release version are also included, albeit with less impressive high-definition transfers that only call further attention to the subtle delights of the extended cut’s restoration.
Sound is equally resplendent, plotting the film’s rich soundtrack of geographically and temporally appropriate birdsong in an enveloping field. Dialogue and narration is soft, but crystal clear in front channels, while the occasional outbreak of music or gunfire is suitably deafening. Sound quality is the same across the three cuts, and as is ever the case with Criterion’s Terrence Malick releases, one is advised to play the film loudly.
A feature-length making-of documentary, produced during the film’s making and released shortly thereafter, is the most fascinating extra in Criterion’s set, affording a glimpse into Malick’s unorthodox shooting style that sees crew and cast alike constantly scrambling around without cues. To see action sequences filmed not according to storyboard or planning, but simple intuition, is every bit as enthralling as the completed scenes. The three-disc set also comes with newly recorded interviews with various members of the crew, from the two lead actors reminiscing about the strange shoot to old Malick stalwarts like producer Sarah Green and production designer Jack Fisk contextualizing the production within the director’s larger body of work.
Of particular note are a pair of extras devoted to the film’s editing. One of them, a collection of interviews with Saar Klein, Hank Corwin, and Mark Yoshikawa, delves into the immense difficulty of shaping a film for Malick. Each editor mentions shots they loved that fell to the wayside, as well as how the overall process started like a normal job before they began cutting to Malick’s mood and ideas over narrative and continuity. When they mention the sheer amount of 35mm film they had to comb through, their chuckles still carry residual weariness at the work. Yoshikawa heads the other editing feature, this one a delineation of the three cuts included in this release. The extended cut is Malick and D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki’s preferred version, but this extra is incredibly useful for exploring the way that the material has been reshaped for each cut. Finally, there are theatrical trailers, as well as a booklet with a critical essay by Tom Gunning, an interview with Lubezki from a 2006 issue of American Cinematography, as well as production notes and reproductions of paintings that inspired the film’s tone and aesthetic.
The inclusion of each cut of The New World, along with a stunning 4K restoration of the preferred extended cut and copious extras, marks this as the definitive home-video release of Terrence Malick’s greatest film.