Of all of Terrence Malick’s transcendent oeuvre, The New World (2005/2008) is the one that has the most fanatic admirers. It’s not hard to see why: The film is the best of Malick’s middle period, when he balanced the convention of his early films with the utter idiosyncrasy of his more recent work. It is, I believe, the best introduction to what a Malick film essentially is.
We can split Malick’s filmography so far into three periods. The early period comprises his first two films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), in which the style is still recognizably conventional, though his idea of character and narrative already start to slip into the symbolic and archetypal realms; it’s a toss-up which one is better. The middle period, or nature-porn period, begins after his 20-year hiatus with The Thin Red Line (1998) and continues through The New World and The Tree of Life (2011). After this comes his late period, when in To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and Song to Song (2017), he takes the style developed for all the nature and greenery of the middle period and deploys it in the realm of society and relationships; I have yet to see Song to Song, but I doubt it could top To the Wonder, which Richard Brody rightfully calls “a cinematic miracle.”
Though The Tree of Life garnered more attention and accolades, The New World is the better film, not only because it sticks the landing, but also due to its thematic heft. Malick breathes archetypal air, so the Pocahontas story—about the meeting of two civilizations, their vexed coexistence, and the founding of a nation and the demise of another, all refracted through a Platonic-romantic meeting of man and woman—is Malick catnip (indeed, he started writing the story way back in the late seventies). The result manages to viscerally convey all of these aspects.
Many admirers praised the voiceovers, but it’s in this film that you start to realize how unimportant their specific semantic meanings are compared to the atmosphere created by the use of key words and their tone, a hunch that’s proven in To the Wonder with its untranslated yet still effective voiceovers in French and Spanish. Q’orianka Kilcher, 14 at the time(!!), is the perfect Pocahontas, but the basic story itself is still rather shady: With Western civilization’s shared guilt of indigenous genocide, indigenous people shouldn’t be made to symbolize anything, let alone everything.