Possibly the most explicitly thematic among the famously un-explicit Terrence Malick oeuvre, The New World’s de facto state of mind is the untamable wonder and bedeviling awe of the unexplored tracts of physical land and the unexplored mental topography of human longing and desire. Beginning with a human marooned in a strange world, the man’s only outlet to reformulate their essence is to couple the corporeal material of the physical world with his spiritual or extra-real essence of self-awareness within nature for the first time. This rigid “physical” and “mental/emotional/spiritual” dichotomy has historically been if not corroded then at least imperiled by non-Western cultures who have often adopted more fluxional conceptions of how physical, mental, and spiritual Western categorizations are instead more dialectical and interweaving, even possibly the same thing (materials are given use value beyond their capitalist physical money value). Malick’s own temperament has for decades obviously occupied a realm at least parallel to this distinctly non-capitalist mental wavelength. His films unstitch the iron-clad demarcations of the physical and the spiritual by basking in the ability of the human, untethered from their normative mental shackles, to approach new mental resplendence, new mental exultancy, by opening up to the capacious confines of the natural world.
Malick’s implications are also conditioned on the American Emersonian ideal of nature as the primary worldly fount for reconsidering the self and slackening the moorings of society through mental oneness with the natural world and the self. The ethereal, spiritual air of scorching tactility in the mise-en-scene clashing disarmingly with the drunkenly floating insouciance of the heaven-sent camera content simply to bask, to be, in nature, the film finds a piece of god in the puzzle of the material world. Emmanuel Lubezki’s stream-of-consciousness cinematography and the (from four cut-and-choppers) languid editing invoke the dream consciousness of opening up your mental pores in a physical, and preferably strange place, considering but not codifying nature and its elusive mystery and uncontainability. Uniquely among modern filmmakers, Malick’s cadence isn’t compartmentalization or epistemology or even “understanding” more broadly; for him, understanding nature only pacifies its wonder. Instead, he prefers ontological being within the world, existing, flowing through the contours of unmoored space and opening up the coldness of the mind to the glowing iridescence of the unabated, ever-shifting world.
Malick’s exploration of the oft-retold love story of new world transplant John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Native American Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) is unique in that the narrative is, functionally, a proxy for a broader metaphysical exploration of the self-propagating bliss and off-balance seduction and inclassifiable confusion of an external realm that humanity cannot circumscribe. Malick’s treatise is also no mere dichotomized political critique wherein the Natives understand and embrace nature while the European transplants corrupt nature by attempting to repress it and quell the mystery of something uncontainable by conscripting nature for their own practical use (turning trees into wooden planks and the like). I mean, the film isn’t not that, but Malick’s almost extra-human register transcends mere political analysis and wafts into an ethereal plea that incorporates the self into the unrestrained divinity of nature. In essence, the interpersonal, the political, and the experiential all blend into a gestalt that transcends any and all realms distinctly by dissolving the demarcations we traditionally view each by. That the human mind and the physicality of nature can be separated in Malick’s film is a tentative fiction. The romance of a European man and a Native American woman is almost haptically linked to a mantra of bonding more broadly with that which initially seems alienating in its difference from you.
A revenant from a long-lost cinematic tradition of impressionistic emphasis on fleeting experiences with space rather than narrative linkages between spaces, the film dives with kamikaze abandon into a deeply anecdotal conception of the temporal realm. Movements and moments flow not with iron-clad diction but a passing, provisional sense of simply wafting between shots with little regard for the grammar of realism to showcase the connecting bits. Ever kinetic but wrapped in stasis, the placid but motile style evokes the faint memory of scenes rather than revealing scenes full-bore, although memory implies something altogether more residual and temporally trapped than the ever-active, ever-reconfigurable world Malick sniffs out under our noses. Always slipping away from our desires for narrative catharsis, the editing channels a sense of metaphysical intuition rather than narrative coherence, trembling around physical space rather than depicting it contiguously; the film cuts along thematic rather than logical lines, matching moments that are linked in an almost extra-sensory way. As corollary, the film uncouples our idea of the world and experience from physical continuity, conjuring instead a typhoon, a rhapsody, of emotional and philosophical linkages that rumble the soul with impressions of a world with no stipulations about narrative coherence or logical clarity. The sense is of unrestricted liberation within nature, as well as nature’s unrestricted liberation from humanity as well; this isn’t a natural world that lives to be edited so that humans appear in each frame, so that each aspect of nature’s beauty can symbolically reflect something about human nature, or so that the human audience can understand this nature. This nature flies its own way.
The New World channels the glowing felt force of experience into the catalyzing energy of artistic expression within the world. Certainly, John Smith’s new spiritual geometry and reaction to the natural phantasmagoria of new experience is an avenue for Malick, but like any great formalist, Malick transposes Smith’s rejuvenation into the film’s rejuvenation, the audience’s rejuvenation. By “the film’s rejuvenation”, I mean that the film itself – with its dangerously unplanned camerawork, Malick witnessing the world around him and liberatingly freeing himself to improvise the camera’s movement and reinterpret the world on a beat by beat basis – is an act of rejuvenating response to the world around it. The film rejects Hitchcockian planning and “directed” viewing, denying high key lighting that would focus the viewer toward Malick’s plan. Instead of prefiguring nature and flattening it by directing our view in every shot, the film lets loose with nature, exploring the full breadth and wonder of unfathomable natural light cascading and whipping up a blitzkrieg through space. And, because this light cannot be controlled, Malick must formally rely on that which he thematically wishes to convey: simply perceiving light, perceiving nature, rather than reining it in. From the devotion to the untouched beauty of the roving camera to the disembodied grunts and screams that haunt like specters in the frame refracting desire with no corporeal form, Malick’s film is fanatically committed to relinquishing the visual and aural inhibitions of cinema that are imposed by the dominant order of issue-focused and narratively-demarcated film.
All of which comes to a head in the hostile and divergent finale where the entire visual schema – the mantra of the unchained, liberated camera and the out-of-bounds sounds gliding across the screen and committing aural terrorism – is obliterated in a brutalizing final flourish that decimates not only the visual but the mental texture of the piece. The return to England, decried as disjointed in 2005 when the film was released, is less a tangent than a harmony of oppositions. In the new world, Malick emphasizes feral camera movement, inquisitive glides into nature, an increasingly unstable perspective and out of center depiction of his main character thrust into the strange and portentially estranging unknowability of nature at its most unmediated. In England, symmetry, ossification, and high-contrast, almost plastic, color is the order of the day, estranging us from that which we might call civilization after inuring us to the undomesticated fury of nature unpacked before our eyes. This England, in contrast, is nature boxed up, warped into hedge-mazes and hard right angles that reveal explicit pathways for humans to transgress, to control, with nature existing for little reason other than to be mutated into humanity’s backdrop (light is similarly strangled, with the film shifting slightly to a more high-contrast and intentional utilization of classical lighting techniques).
The finale of The New World is devastating on a narrative level, but on a formal level, the sense of emotional decimation is unmatched; Malick musters his artistic principles into signifying, expressing, the sense of disruption and stylistic loss that his muted human characters often cannot convey. In the quasi-avant-garde tradition of cinema that distorts logical cinematic representation, Malick’s cinema uses the world as a wellspring of emotional transcendence and spirited transformation of space, a poetic and artistic reaction to the world that enjoins the audience and the artist to lose themselves to the unexplained, the wobbly, and the amorphous rather than trying to rationalize something that eludes rationalism.