The Top Ten (or so) Films of the Decade: #3 The New World (Malick, 2006)
I remember the first time I read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland for a college English class– not getting it, not wanting to get it, ultimately hating it. I remember reading it again, baffled and bewildered by the professor’s in-class comments that suggested a depth I hadn’t even begun to fathom– laboring over it, taking copious notes, spending several days mulling over it in my spare time. And I remember reading it again and again– growing in my love and understanding of it, ultimately finding it to be the most meaningful and profoundly moving thing I read as an English major.
My experience with The New World is somewhat the same, and it should be no surprise– Terrence Malick’s transcendent proto-American epic is very much a cinematic poem, both defying and defining the cliche through its harnessing of the power of image and the potency of myth. It’s an alternate history, a secret history, and– dare I say?– a truthful history of America’s origins, a naturalistic meditation on destiny, free will, love, liberty, and responsibility. And it’s a movie you have to work at– a movie you have to grow with.
I had a friend who recently told me that he loves putting on The New World as a backdrop for other activities. This initially seems like the exact opposite of how one should approach this film– patiently, attentively– but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. This is a film in which one experiences, almost in a mystical way, something of the sublime: Malick’s much-loved (and in some circles maligned) shots of the natural world are restoring, rejuvenating, serene. They offer a quiet place of reflection, an experience of something deeply beautiful.
It is, in a good many ways, a misunderstood film. Not at all the kind of ravishing precolonial romance some anticipated, it is, instead, a contemplative love story that is told not through impassioned dialogue, but through internal monlogue, through private thoughts and prayers. And the story that it tells is of a nation’s birth, yes, but also of things much more primal, universal, and human.
The New World is a suggestive film: It tells a story we all know, about characters who are iconic, and considers ideals that are deeply ingrained into our nation’s identity. It understands the power of all this, yet it casts all of it in a role subservient to the untamed landscapes it so lovingly explores. There are bigger things at play– both in this movie and in the universe– than the story of America, and that story is told here in a way that bids us to reconnect with something far larger.