With "The New World," that body of work now presents itself in two distinct phases -- Malick's '70s-era classics "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" on the one side and 1998's "The Thin Red Line" and 2005's "The New World" on the other. Notwithstanding the considerable merits of the individual works, it is their confluence that most intrigues, as if each is but one chapter in a broader, ongoing work whose overarching themes have yet to fully manifest themselves. Love, violence, the nature of man and the tides of time figure prominently in all four, but it wasn't until "The Thin Red Line" that Malick seemed to finally begin finding answers to his nagging questions. Ironically, "The New World" doesn't so much add anything new as unearth a profound thematic communion between the plight of "The Thin Red Line's" daunted soldiers and the similarly daunted English settlers who formed that first ragtag community of Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s.
In one sense, it is among the most familiar narratives is the annals of American history -- how a certain Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) fell captive to a hostile Native American tribe, only to be saved from execution by the intervention of the chief's daughter, Pocahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher). Through Malick's magnificent prism, however, the timeworn clichés (many of them fostered by the animated Disney film) are sloughed away to reveal an almost primal tale of love and survival, with Smith and Pocahontas -- whose native name is never actually indicated -- serving as stripped-down emblems of raw humanity perpetually at odds with the prevailing moral and ethical codes of their respective societies.
As usual, Malick relies on voice-overs to connect the audience with his characters' innermost thoughts, a device that flirts dangerously close to the esoteric, but which nonetheless bares their souls in ways that no amount of spoken dialogue could ever hope to do.
The parallels between Farrell's Captain Smith and James Caviezel's Private Witt in "The Thin Red Line" are particularly compelling -- both are rebellious military men drawn to the ways of indigenous peoples and their communion with nature, yet ultimately unable to stem the intrusion of blood into the virgin paradise each has adopted as his new home. Crucial differences are a function of the historical backdrop -- primitivism impinging on and even threatening the existence of the post-industrial world during WWII as opposed to a primitive 17th-century people's quest to progress in spite of their own inclinations.
Sumptuous photography and production design, stunning sound design and period recreation so convincing that it sometimes seems to have replicated an alien world are the added hallmarks of Malick's method, so seamlessly integrated that "The New World" cascades through one's senses like a dream. And, like a dream, it embraces a narrative construct that wafts and wanders without any consistent momentum. Part of this is Malick's praiseworthy determination to defer to the historical record rather than the usual Hollywood practice of compromising the facts for the sake of entertainment. But Malick also seems to have little interest in closure -- open-ended philosophizing suits him just fine, even if it's sometimes a bit much to digest in one sitting. This is, after all, but one chord in what may eventually become a supremely talented visual artist's great cinematic symphony. Starring Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Wes Studi, David Thewlis and August Schellenberg. Directed and written by Terrence Malick. Produced by Sarah Green. A New Line release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some intense battle sequences. Running time: 150 min