Founding myths need to be rewritten from time to time, which calls for a filmmaker of high intellectual seriousness and considerable ego. Or a lot of time on his hands. Terrence Malick certainly has all three, since he's made only his fourth movie in 30 years with The New World (which opens Friday, Jan. 20, at the Metro and other theaters), after Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line. How's this for a theme—the very birth of modern America, beginning with England's 1607 settlement of the Jamestown colony (in future Virginia), a toehold seized from an ancient aboriginal society that would, in about 200 short years, be decimated by the settlers' heirs. Only Malick leaves out the tragedy that followed this European entry to Eden; his story stops at 1616, before Native America succumbed to war, disease, and displacement.
Gorgeously affecting on an almost primeval level, The New World casts natives and settlers on the innocent cusp of their future collision. Malick sees the good, mostly, on both sides. His larger project is the unifying, life-giving power of nature, the original animist culture of Chesapeake Bay, apprehended by the newcomers—chiefly Capt. John Smith—but soon forgotten by the practical-minded followers. What are Malick's more specific subjects? Besides the tender romance between Smith and Pocahontas, the sun, moon, water, and wind.
Typical Malick moviemaking, in other words—more symphony (including Wagner and Mozart) than story; long philosophical passages of voice-over; superb photography by Y Tu Mamá También's Emmanuel Lubezki, using almost entirely natural light; and an ending that really isn't. The film was second on my list for the Village Voice critics' poll, and while this cut is 15 minutes shorter than the one I saw in December, the studio promises there's only been some tightening (down to 135 minutes) and no excisions of plot or character. (Unlike poor Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line; of course, if that footage of Brody has now been added to World, shame on me.)
A MAN WHO makes his career out of second chances, ambitious professional soldier Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in chains, having been accused of mutiny en route. Expedition leader Newport (Christopher Plummer) pardons him, and Smith is inspired by the land of his new freedom: "We shall make a new start, a fresh beginning. No need grow poor." With Newport and their three tiny ships turned round for supplies, Smith leads a delegation to find what they assume will be a friendly monarch among "the naturals" (who remain peaceful but wary during their initial sniff-and-greet with the colonists). Upriver, however, Smith's weighty armor makes him easy pickings for the warriors of mighty Powhatan (August Schellenberg). He's swiftly captured and sentenced to die until, of course, the famous intervention of the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, who shields his body with her own.
Cast as a 14-year-old in this critical role, Q'orianka Kilcher is a charming revelation, the freshest debut since Ziyi Zhang in The Road Home. Neither she nor anyone else speaks much in the first 30 minutes; this is a Malick movie, after all, where dialogue and performance are kept in separate test tubes. There are some subtitles for the Indians' worried consultations, but mainly Pocahontas, her father's favorite child, expresses herself through a boundless physical curiosity about Smith. While he learns their ways, she studies him, plucking morsels of English from him like berries. She and her brother also play hunter and prey in the tall, swaying grass—perhaps Malick's signature image—and, fingers held to her ears, you'd swear she was a doe, so transformed are her step and posture. She's still got a child's innate genius for mimicry.
How can Smith not fall in love with her? He's already taken with her people: "They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession." (Put that to music, Neil Young.) Like any 17th-century Englishman, he knows his Bible, and he realizes he's stepped back into paradise. He can only fall from this grace, as we see when he's freed to return to his starving stockade: Inside, the colonists not already killed by disease and hunger are eating their leather belts—and their own dead. Civilization: Who needs it? We feel as disgusted as Smith. Also, the first of several confusing Jamestown political battles begins; Malick doesn't paint many differences between the other colonists (look for Noah Taylor, Ben Chaplin, and David Thewlis), and the thick English accents don't help us distinguish between their dirty faces.
By the time Newport returns, Smith is in disgrace again. With war likely with Powhatan, the Indians are now called "savages," and Smith warns Pocahontas, "Don't trust me." He sees what's coming, the pollution and bloodshed. He's got the first documented case of white liberal guilt, yet she forgives him. "You flow through me like water," she says, and Farrell's eyes moisten with sorrow. If he can't lead the colony, he knows, he'll have to leave it.
YET MALICK DOESN'T treat this like Romeo and Juliet in the woods. If their love is doomed, along comes John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a decent, pious tobacco planter. Pocahontas has been banished from her people for aiding the enemy. Treated like a captive princess, she now wears European clothing and keeps a maid. "We're like grass," she tells her husband-to-be: Knocked down by heartbreak, they have no choice but to rise up again to the sun.
So it is with the movie, which ought to be sad, but isn't. It's a regenerative myth, a revision against revisionism. Malick romanticizes history, rewrites it to his own purposes (Smith and the much younger Pocahontas weren't lovers; events are greatly compressed), keeping the sadness but removing the tragedy from this primal encounter between tribes. Though Pocahontas lives to wander amazed through English topiary gardens and an admiring court of royals, you remember her last frolicking with Smith in her wild meadows by the river. If history only moves forward, Malick's great achievement is to flow his story backward to its source, our source, where two streams of American history converge.