“There is only this; all else is unreal.”
The explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) has spoken that line in all three versions of Terrence Malick’s The New World: the original, 150-minute 2005 theatrical cut (not available on DVD); the 135-minute theatrical recut (New Line, $14.98), and the latest incarnation, Malick’s 172-minute extended cut. Each time Smith utters the line, it resonates differently, thanks to the changes wrought by the filmmaker—the length of certain scenes and shots, the rhythm and structure that Malick and his editors impose upon the material, and the transitions between sections (this release breaks the film into titled chapters).
In the first cut, which focused mainly on the effect of war and cultural change on individual lives, the pronoun this seemed to refer to the continent being disrupted and ultimately altered by English settlers: Paradise before the fall. In the second, which zeroed in on the personal evolution of Smith’s great love, the Powhatan princess Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), this seemed synonymous with the affair itself: a paradise within Paradise. But in the latest iteration—which gives formerly marginal characters little visual arias of behavior, and lets existing scenes play out at much greater length, favoring ambient noise over music—Smith’s this means the present tense, to whatever he or the other characters are experiencing in the moment. Or, as Smith intones in another scene: “What else is life but living?”
If you digested that chunk of microanalysis and kept reading, it’s likely that you’ve already seen and loved one or both versions of The New World and plan on buying this one. Conversely, if you disliked previous cuts, you can assume that the latest won’t change your mind; that’s fine, because changing minds, or achieving a “definitive” version, is not the point of Malick’s exercise, as this disc’s utter lack of supplements (or options that let you compare this cut with the others) suggests.
This version foregrounds Smith, Pocahontas, Pocahontas’s second husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and a half dozen subsidiary characters as they are shocked into reconsidering who they are and why they exist. The result is its own splendid thing—a fresh take on the story drawn from the film’s numerous shots of rivers feeding into oceans, reshaping the land and nourishing the landscape. It is a historical epic that illustrates Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief that humankind’s collective past, present and future are encoded in each individual life.
Malick has been kidded (even mocked) for his free-associative montages, his parenthetical shots of flora and fauna, and his penchant for purplish internal monologues. The newest New World offers more of the same: It’s a bumper crop of grace notes. We see Smith saving a Powhatan child from drowning; more footage of Smith and the tribesmen getting to know each other, even comically pantomiming each other’s cultural peculiarities; a new scene in which Rolfe asks Smith’s former commander, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), if he should let Smith visit the now-assimilated Pocahontas in England; a sequence in which a mentally challenged Powhatan brave visits the Jamestown fort and is so wowed (particularly by the soldiers’ deafening cannon) that he staggers out with a spacey grin on his face, giggling like a stoner.
The tension between innocent curiosity and social conditioning drives every subplot, every interaction, every decision. It pushes Pocahontas to settle in at the fort after Smith deserts her, don Western clothes, and learn to read and speak English. It makes Smith, a low-born criminal, pursue Pocahontas, interact with her fellow tribespeople, accept command positions for which he’s ill-suited.
This edition pointedly asks, “How much of personal evolution can be ascribed to conscious choice and how much to the subliminal aftershocks of historical forces? And what parts of ourselves remain mysterious?” The seemingly endless ways in which Malick has assembled its component parts in his various editions highlights these questions as pointedly as any single scene or line. It’s possible to envision a fourth or fifth cut, equally playful and intriguing. The New World, in all its versions, proves that it is, in fact, possible to find new things with each trip to the river.