Terrence Malick's The New World put me in a physical state I've never before experienced in a movie: hunched forward in my seat, breathing much too fast, bracing myself in anticipation of heartbreak--then dissolving in tears of joy at passages that feel like more than the human heart can hold. Malick's script follows the outward-flying, all-embracing shape of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, sometimes very literally; Malick is the first artist in movies who has managed to translate Whitman's ecstasy--the bliss of connectedness to all creatures and things--into sound, music, and images. He returns movies to the poetic essence of silent cinema--and essence is, in fact, the theme of this work. In 19th-century fashion, Malick is an essentialist, a believer that Nature and Woman and Country have cores that can be identified and photographed. But that essence can't be too easily quantified, because a thing's essence is, for Malick, its soul. The transmission of spirit through cinema: Haven't thought about that much lately, have you? Malick seeks to return movies to their essence by traveling backward in time to a period before their invention.
The New World takes place at the beginning of the 17th century for a tale so oft-told we almost can't hear it any longer: White Europeans encounter Native Americans; mutual attraction, incomprehension, and violence ensue. But the time to which the movie transports us is not that period; rather, it's in the 1800s where Malick's mind dwells--a time when the movement of the New World from a green idyll into a gray factory sent certain sensitive souls both inward and outward, finding the spirit they lacked in society in leaves of grass. "Is there a war in nature?" was the question that reverberated through Malick's last movie, The Thin Red Line, in which the calamities of war were seen from the vantage point of the tall, unbloodied trees that stood above dying young men in the battlefield. Here, Malick asks if there is the possibility for peace in nature, for the redemption of our mortal follies in the blissful endlessness of nature's cycles; answering in the affirmative, he manifests that possibility in set pieces of near-blinding exhilaration.
The movie is structured around three ecstatic montages: the arrival of the tall ships in the New World, the consummation of the love between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the girl usually known as Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), and a third that I can't divulge to those who haven't seen the film. Each section uses a passage from Wagner's "Das Rheingold" that focuses on a single rising and falling arpeggio that musically mimes Malick's trademark image, the rippling of wind through tall fields of grass; and in each, the natural world cascades over us, imminent and omnipresent, its embrace at once sexual, intoxicating, menacing, and ennobling. It is a sign of The New World's towering ambition that, in these three sequences, those cascading images of nature are meant to encompass the blending of many kinds of oppositions: the "technological" and the "primitive," male and female, innocence and experience.
Are Malick's images of a fecund virgin-child-mother and her tribe "naive"? The PC police will find their arrest warrants rescinded by the totalizing power of Malick's vision. In the penultimate sequence, the heroine is brought to the British court and has the red carpet rolled out for her: His Majesty the King delights her with all the creatures of his menagerie and with the animal skins and plumage worn by his baroquely attired courtiers. It is as if the genes of the dowdy British and the florid American aborigines met once again in the future--peaceably recombining to re-create the image of the garden in heaven.
No contemporary filmmaker, not even Robert Bresson (who died nursing a dream of a film based on the book of Genesis), has removed everyday psychology from movie acting as Malick has here. By creating often wordless scenes in which his actors are focused on arduous physical tasks, Malick moves us back to a place discovered by the pilgrims of Christian portraiture: the revelation of the soul as the unselfconscious subject. In the magical alchemy between editing, music, and the guileless faces of his performers, Malick finds an inner light.
Yesterday I ran into film critic F.X. Feeney on the street, and he couldn't contain his enthusiasm for The New World: "It's as good as Dreyer's Joan of Arc or Sansho the Bailiff! It's as good as anything!" Is that right? It'll take a few years to find out. But it certainly feels right. There is something thrilling about watching the 62-year-old Malick trying to equal and exceed not his peers in the movie-brat generation, but Romantic opera, Whitman, and the Bible. Like Whitman, Malick views his work as a nature-based Book of Life, a complete almanac in which wisdom is available for every living soul at every stage of life, the entirety of experience contained within a platter of film.
That will likely provoke ridicule--and not just because this consummately anti-ironic artifact features bad boy Colin Farrell and a teenage native girl in a potentially giggle-making embrace. It's because, for all the euphoria contained within it, The New World ends on a note of supreme terror--a note sounded after you leave the theater. For the title refers also to the world that exists outside the multiplex--the world of movie posters and soft-drink bargains and bus kiosks and ring tones and civilian casualties-- our substitute for soulful leaves of grass. Once you have viewed that new world through Malick's eyes, you can never see it innocently again.