There was a lot of critical breathlessness in 1998 when director Terrence Malick returned from a 20-year hiatus to direct the World War II Pacific Theater drama The Thin Red Line, and thankfully there was not as long a wait for his follow-up film The New World. Don't get me wrong, seven years between films is still seven years, and Malick-helmed films are more frequent in the subsequent years since these two works (the upcoming Voyage of Time will be his fourth in six years), but over time it seems like The New World has grown in stature amongst the director's work.
Malick also wrote the script, which recounts the events surrounding the English settlers of Jamestown. It includes Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell, Winter's Tale), who is held as prisoner for mutinous comments to the ship's, and is sentenced to death when they land. When the sentence is about to be carried out he is pardoned, and eventually tasked with the mission of finding supplies like food or medicine to trade. Smith is captured by several Native Americans, and it appears that he will be killed again, but again, his life is spared, this time by Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher, Princess Kaiulani), the daughter of the tribal chief. The film chronicles his time amongst the tribe and with the settlers, and his relationship with Pocahontas. It also shows the tensions between the settlers and Native Americans and Smith's eventual departure from Powhatan, and Pocahontas' relationship and eventual move to England with John Rolfe (Christian Bale, The Big Short) before her death.
By now, there may be a template to Malick films, viewer-assumed or otherwise. You know what it is, where characters speak in brief, wispy sentences full of abstract, set to a beautiful shot of wind against the trees or characters lit with the sun of magic hour. And on a macro level, the story of John Smith and Pocahontas is one that we keenly aware of and has been retold in various forms since its late 16th century transpiration of events. Introducing Malick's stylistic elements in it enhances the romanticism that Smith has with the Native American's respect and love of nature. It also enhances Smith's relationship with Pocahontas, and makes the battle sequences between the two factions all the more painful when they inevitably occur in the film. Malick allows the humanity of these two figures to shine, and that humanity is exploited by tribal motivation.
Farrell's work as Smith in the film is excellent. He reins in any brashness or brooding while establishing firm bonds with the Native Americans, and retains some distrust of his fellow English travelers. There is a desire to see the land in him that is somewhat Quixotic and he conveys this well in expression and, well, wispy sentences full of abstract. Matching him stride for stride, and lapping him on occasion, is Kilcher, a revelation for her work. Seeing her innocence and trust transform into naivete in the eyes of her father Chief Powhatan (Wes Studi, Avatar) is something to watch. And as Smith becomes more distant (and she takes up with another man in Rolfe, Pocahontas does have moments of happiness, but she is never truly happy. Seeing this play out in a 14-year old, in her first major role, is amazing to see, and Kilcher delivers in a big way.
Having never seen The New World before, I watched all three versions over three nights, in the order of the 136-minute theatrical cut, the 150-minute first cut and wrapping up with the 172-minute extended cut. The theatrical certainly does feel incomplete in parts, with the first cut having some subtle additions to it (the supplements get into detail on the differences between all three versions), but the extended cut seems to reflect the best intentions of Malick, with text cards introduced as chapter breaks to a degree, and include more time spent between Smith and the tribesmen to further show the bond between them, and further establishes his fondness for them and for Pocahontas. It shows more detail and even gives Rolfe more sympathy for his relationship with her and her untimely death, and includes other scenes that may be superfluous considering the general nature of the film but are appreciated here. I think in terms of preference, the Extended Cut is the clear choice, followed by the first and theatrical cuts in descending order of length.
I had some intrigue about The New World before coming to it, and after poring over nine hours of various cuts of the film, I think it proves to be an underrated gem of a movie, and one of Malick's best. Granted, the shallowness of that bench does put a caveat on such a claim, but Malick's prodigiousness in recent years certainly makes the film something that should be re-evaluated by those who initially dismissed it.The Blu-rays:
Three discs, one for each cut of The New World, all in 2.35:1 widescreen. Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who worked on this film) supervised all three transfers, and Malick supervised the transfer on one of the extended cut. Speaking of the extended cut, a new 4K transfer was done for that one, which Criterion has an excellent piece chronicling the work put in on their website, and it's worth checking out as the transfer is gorgeous. Textures in clay walls, or in large blades of grass are abundant as is the case in facial pores or clothing. You can even see the dirt at the bottom of a river come up when some Native Americans are rowing with Smith in an overhead shot, and things like tree bark or smaller objects like excess, caked tribal paint are noticeable. Colors are vivid and exceptional throughout, and film grain is visible during large moments of viewing. All of the versions look great, but the Extended cut is gorgeous.The Sound:
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround for all three versions, with the Extended Cut getting the biggest effort (a remastered track at that), and sonically is as up to the task as the video presentation. Dialogue is well-centered in the soundstage, but it's the non-dialogue sound that is the gem here. From the opening moments, the sounds of nature in bugs and birds echo throughout the channels and slowly dissolve from back to front, left and right, possessing a convincing level of immersion. When musket fire commences it is loud and startling, and cannon sounds bring the low end into play as well. The use of Wagner in the film is distinctive and shows off the power of the soundtrack without distorting or artifacts. Criterion's work on Malick films thus far has been superb.Extras:
There are supplements on each disc. Starting off, the "Extended Cut" disc includes the making of look at the production which was on the prior extended cut release and the theatrical cut releases, and it's a big'un. The nearly 90-minute look at the film shows the set assembly, recollections and inspiration and location scouting at the time. The Native Americans in the film share their thoughts on being consulted for this and what they thought the film would mean to their community. Archery and firearms training is shown, along with Native American dances and dialects. Lots of the film has Lubezki shooting and/or working with the cast on a particular shot, and the rigorous weather in Virginia and later in England is shown. The cast share their thoughts on Malick, the roles they play and working with one another, and lots of rehearsals and assemblies for components of the film are documented. It's a bit of oversimplifying on my part, but the piece really is quite good. The theatrical trailer (2:24) and teaser trailer (1:25) are the only other things on this disc.
The "First Cut" disc examines the three versions (17:10), where Mark Yoshikawa, editor for all three versions of it, discusses how he approached all three versions, including how, shortly before a screening of the film, he was instructed to make cuts to it, and how he had Malick approached changing the film without effecting the storytelling. Comparisons between the first cut and the theatrical are explained, and illustrated, along with comparisons between the theatrical and extended, and occasionally all three versions are shown. He talks about working with Malick compared to other directors as well, and the piece is quite fascinating. "Editors" (40:42) is a discussion with Yoshikawa, as well as editing partners Saar Klein and Hank Corwin (JFK) as they talk about their impressions on Malick's process and influence in the editing room, their goal as editors, and providing their respective backgrounds before coming to The New World. They talk about the challenges in editing and in working with each other, and it seems like there is some lingering resentment by Klein and Corwin for Yoshikawa, though I could be wrong. They talk about some of the moments in the film, and recount composer James Horner's thoughts on the misuse of his score in it. It is surprisingly intriguing stuff.
The "Theatrical Cut" disc starts with "Actors" (30:04), where Farrell and Kilcher recall how they got their respective parts, while Kilcher recounts the audition process for it. They discuss Malick's process and how much history was used to ensure authenticity. Kilcher discusses the physical demands of her role and what they liked and did not like while on set, along with an occasional anecdote or two. Of the bonuses, this was slightly forgettable. The "Production" one (36:30) interviews producer Sarah Green, production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West as they speculated on some of the historical detail, admitting they don't know the whole story between John Smith, Pocahontas and Smith's relationship with the Indians. The casting of Kilcher is mentioned here, along with the locations which were scouted before settling in Virginia. Set designs are remembered, along with the inspirations for same, in addition to the makeup and costumes. The respective crew members talk about how Malick works and his process in general.Final Thoughts:
Not knowing what to expect from The New World, what I got was a film that left me pondering about things a few days after seeing it, if nothing else because of the sheer beauty that permeates most every part of it. Criterion provides as complete a package as you would expect, capping things off with a jaw-dropping transfer of what Terrence Malick wanted all of us to see. The bonus material is a fine accompaniment to the three versions of the film, one of the best releases of 2016.