In some ways, The New World serves as the perfect lead in to Terrence Malick's new film, The Tree of Life. Why? Because TREES are a major theme of World. Yes, trees.
Throughout World, Malick's fourth film, trees are an essential image and metaphor. Early in the film, trees anchor the boats as the European colonists arrive. At the end, tree comprise the final shot. We look upward at a towering cathedral of trees, and then the film ends with the delicate drop of a leaf.
There's something sacred about trees. On his "Gospel of Trees" website, Alan Jacobs writes this:
The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.
“Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds,” says one character in The New World to Pocahontas. “If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching towards the light.” The New World is about resiliency—about pushing on amidst hardship, pain, suffering, and striving to make the best of one’s circumstance. Trees are like that—always growing, pulled toward the sky, even when winds and rain and hardship come. They weather all seasons, even if they lose some pieces along the way. And this is the journey of Pocahontas; the journey of life. We're all familiar.
The New World begins where the Malick's previous film, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, ended: with a boat of weary men escaping a brutal past and hoping for a new start. Though Line is set some 335 years after World, both films evoke a vision of humanity’s quest to transcend imperfect circumstance and begin anew. It is a sentiment of man’s soul that has driven him since he lost Eden. How do we regain what was given us? Can we ever reach those distant shores and “exchange this false life for a true one”?
That question is posed by explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell), in World. Smith arrives on the shores of a new start in 1607, ushering in the critical confluence of native and European cultures that painfully birthed what would eventually become a great nation. Smith is determined to make “a fresh beginning where the blessings of earth are bestowed upon all,” and he takes up an Emersonian-style residence with the native Powhatan tribe (mirroring Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line). Following the familiar myth/fact legend, Smith soon falls in love with the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas (stunningly portrayed by Q’Orianka Kilcher), and lives a beautiful period of utopian bliss.
The first act of World features a peaceful, “calm before the storm” ambiance. We know it is transitory and that something will soon disrupt the balance, but for a time all is well and transcendence is near. The New World fulfills its promise for Smith in the beginning, but soon the reality of war, destitution and man’s ailment (sin) spoils the garden. Paradise is lost, though glimpses of what was, or what could be, are always apparent.
The film's chief tension lies in the love triangle that develops between Pocahontas, Smith and John Rolfe (Christian Bale). When Smith is pulled away from his mythic romance with Pocahontas and called back to England, tobacco-pioneer Rolfe takes over as Pocahontas’ suitor. The two men epitomize different poles of a familiar dynamic—fleeting, reckless joy (Smith) on one hand and more stable, long-term security (Rolfe) on the other. The film's bittersweet resolution to this tension reveals a sort of “living in spite of” theme. Pocahontas might have preferred John Smith to Rolfe, just as she’d probably have opted for a continued life among the Powhatans rather than the Europeans, but she must cope with the circumstances in which she finds herself. She must take inspiration from trees, which keep growing even when branches fall off. She is a metaphor for America: an ever changing, flexible experiment that must adapt to survive, concede setbacks and allow for dissent and frustration in order to move forward.
From the breathtaking opening minutes of the film, an extended montage sequence of sensory crescendo (to the music of Wagner’s Das Rheingold prologue... repeated again in the middle, and end of the film), we know that World is not a conventional film. We do suspect it is a Terrence Malick film, however, and during the next two+ hours of 65mm nature photography, hushed voiceovers, elliptical editing, jump-cut storytelling, hyper-attentive sound and scarcely little dialogue, we become convinced of this fact.
In 2005, Malick made a rare appearance at a December 26, 2005 screening of World in his (rumored) hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and actually fielded a few questions. The artist suggested to the audience that the best way to view his film was to “just get into it; let it roll over you. It's more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself.”
A film like this cannot be read like a book. It is not as black and white as your average American history lesson. Malick understands that America is more complex than that; that existence is more than one nation’s mythology; that any “New World” is not an end to the journey. The Virginian shore was just the beginning for Smith and the other early settlers. The New World is, as Malick told the Bartlesville audience, above all a story of hope: “Maybe the true shore is still yet to be discovered.”