Without rehashing my thoughts on The New World, let me simply begin by restating my conviction that Terrence Malick’s masterpiece about the 1607 arrival of English settlers on the American continent was 2005’s best film. However, with two competing versions having hit multiplexes during the past two months – the 150-minute cut that screened for critics and played briefly in select theaters during December, and the abbreviated 135-minute cut that recently opened in wide release – a further question logically arises: to which version am I referring? The easy answer, of course, is that I’m talking about the 150-minute one, which is what I fell head-over-heels in love with before constructing my end-of-year lists for Slant magazine and The Village Voice (where it landed at #1). Yet having now also seen Malick’s current, leaner edition – created, by all accounts, not because of profit-driven studio pressures but because of the director’s genuine desire to reshape his film for mainstream viewers – such a definitive choice becomes a bit trickier, as the two aren’t wholly opposite beasts but, rather, spiritually conjoined creations that offer up complementary aesthetic visions designed to appeal to somewhat different cinephilic dispositions.
Having seen these alternate New Worlds almost two months apart, I’m ill-equipped to deliver a point-by-point comparison of the changes Malick has made. But what’s amazing is that, for the most part, said changes are frequently (though not always) imperceptible, as the auteur hasn’t taken out wholesale scenes in an effort to shorten the runtime but, instead, seems to have made minor snips to multiple sequences in an effort to reconfigure the rhythm, not the content, of the film. Consequently, whereas the original frequently seemed to find itself swept up by unexpected gusts of wind into ruminative tangents, this compact version appears to have that swirling wind largely at its back, propelling its narrative momentum forward in a more clear, uncomplicated manner. Such structural straightforwardness is coupled with Malick’s revised employment of narration – unlike the beautifully incongruous pairing of voice-overs with non-matching images that characterized the original (as well as The Thin Red Line), the new version more conventionally matches narration with shots of the corresponding speaker. Thus, the result is that this slimmer edition seems more attentive to the story of its three protagonists (superbly embodied by Colin Farrell, Christian Bale and newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher) and less preoccupied with divergent reflections on the natural world’s intrinsic (harmonious and violent) kinship with mankind.
Does the new version’s augmented pace therefore make it superior? It strikes me that one’s response to that query largely depends on one’s inclinations (and expectations). Certainly, this second iteration’s better-developed (and, I think, a tad rushed) tempo contributes to a more accessibly configured mise-en-scène which will undoubtedly appeal to a wider commercial audience. And its more streamlined composition locates the film’s focus squarely on Pocahontas’ plight, whose status as both a tragic romantic figure as well as a symbol of national colonization feels more lucid, more cogently articulated. Yet somehow, I can’t fully shake my own partiality for the longer, more sprawling version. In its abridged form, The New World seems to dilute trace amounts of its elemental strengths: its dreamlike languorousness, its lyrical attunement to the unspoiled environment’s majesty, and its awe-inspiringly nimble linking of seemingly offhand images of nature to its larger thematic concerns. It’s not that both versions of the film don’t exhibit these qualities (as well as splendidly sublime, and thoroughly underrated, use of Wagner and Mozart); it’s just that I feel the longer film has a more organic poeticism – and recasts the United States’ origins as an Adam and Eve-ish fable with more poised, unhurried gracefulness – than the ever-so-slightly more traditionally put-together revision that’s now (hopefully) playing at a theater near you.
Or at least, that’s the stance I’ll stick by until Malick delivers a third, reportedly three-hour cut of The New World on the forthcoming DVD.
(One final note: For further effusive praise about The New World, be sure to check out the blog of NY Press critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who has been one of the film’s most vocal and vociferous champions)