The love affair continues.
I could call The New World the best film of the year, but that seems somehow an impotent gesture. For, inasmuch as it is largely unlike any recent films (it’s probably closest to Malick’s own The Thin Red Line, even though it doesn’t feel much like that either), existing instead on its own plane, with its own thoughts and rules, somehow avoids hermeticism and is instead rather welcoming (mostly), and staggeringly emotional, it remains in a class by itself. Images from it have been pleasurably tumbling around in my head since last Tuesday, but given all the film’s grandeur, it still surprises how none stun so much as one of its simplest: a hand reaches up to take an arm and in an instant ties all of the film’s various strands together with all the power of the best silent cinema. That James Horner’s pillowy score is there to buttress this quietest of gestures pushes the moment into the realm of the ecstatic sublime—a cinematic state always to be treasured for its rarity. But, even though my favorite instant of The New World does comes close to its denouement, that isn’t to say that there aren’t twenty or thirty more that approach it in the wash of the preceding two-plus hours.
Expecting a heady probing of the legacy of the New World’s early settlements, a la portions of William Carlos Williams’s In The American Grain, I was a bit surprised to find that The New World is, at its heart, a love story. Perhaps even more surprised at how Malick uses such a simple, basic narrative arc to reach his grand conclusions, and just how far they fall from Williams’s. If American Grain attempts the literary re-reading of figures lost to history’s cruel misrepresentations as a way of illuminating those places where the promise of America became infested with the detritus of Old Europe, then Malick goes further. By taking two of American history’s more recognizable names and stitching together a narrative built from suppositions, legends, and half-histories, he’s succeeded in rendering the record strange, which allows him the chance to travel time and invent his own idealized version from the ground up, one wholly organic, de-intellectualized (but not unintelligent), engrossing and deeply felt.
How much of this is “true” history? It’s quite unclear, but that seems a largely unimportant question in the face of the work itself. Even if every moment were pure fiction, I like a vision that attempts to recuperate a certain history and the types of American cinematic representations that have spun from it (specifically of Native Americans) in order to present a more viable option for cultural discourse. Even though the film may be a poem, the construction of its thesis is a political act (and Smith’s musings on the possibilities of America which we can all look back on and realize have been soundly dashed cement this), more so than even The Thin Red Line’s cry against war. Early reports from Jackson’s King Kong suggest it as a film that could reinvigorate the increasingly moribund cinema-going experience, and I don’t necessarily believe that it won’t. But I’d like to humbly add Terrence Malick’s The New World to any lists keeping track of such things. Impotent or not, calling it “Best of ….” may be a necessary evil to help elevate it above the din.