THIS IS THE STORY OF the greatest movie ever made that you will never have the opportunity to see. On December 25, 2005, the notoriously media-shy, Waco-born director Terrence Malick released The New World, a reimagining of the founding of the Jamestown settlement and the love affair between English explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and American native Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). The film opened in New York City and Los Angeles on just three screens. It played for exactly nine days before the film’s distributor, New Line, pulled it from circulation altogether. At which point New Line announced that Malick had gone back to the editing room to create a shorter version of the same film.
The rumors immediately began circulating, namely that the studio had found Malick’s first cut so baffling that it demanded a more commercial reedit. But the film’s producer, Sarah Green, insisted otherwise. She told reporters that Malick actually stumbled upon the shorter version while experimenting with an even longer, three-hour cut of the movie that he was planning to include on the DVD. This 135-minute “theatrical cut” opened nationwide on January 20, 2006, grossing a disappointing $12.6 million domestically. It’s that version (and only that version) that will be on the DVD, due out May 9. As for the 150-minute cut that critics, Academy Award voters, and a few lucky New Yorkers and Los Angelenos saw in December—a daring, magisterial effort in which Malick seemed to be conjuring up an entirely new filmmaking language right before our eyes—it’s probably gone forever.
If all of this sounds uncommonly nutty, even by the standards of an industry populated by obsessive revisers like Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola, well, perhaps we should remind ourselves exactly whom we’re talking about here. After all, Terrence Malick has certainly done little over the years to disabuse the world of his reputation as a “mad genius.” Raised in privilege (his father was an executive with Phillips Petroleum) and educated at Harvard, he emerged in Hollywood seemingly out of nowhere with Badlands (1973), a detached, disaffected study of a detached, disaffected murderer and his accomplice (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek). Five years later came Days of Heaven (1978), a love triangle melodrama starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard. The story was hokum; the images were enchanting; the narration—by Linda Manz, a Forrest-Gump-ish-sounding teenager fond of dispensing down-home nuggets of wisdom—just plain bonkers. But Malick’s sensibility was unmistakable: Had there ever been another filmmaker who combined a native Texan’s appreciation for the primacy and vastness of the American landscape with an Ivy Leaguer’s tendency to smoke pot and pseudophilosophize all night long? The Malick mystique only multiplied over the next two decades, when the director seemed to pretty much evaporate off the face of the planet. The film industry suddenly had its own Thomas Pynchon—like figure, the phantom artist whose whereabouts were endlessly speculated upon. (The juiciest of the rumors placed him in Paris working as a hairdresser.) And just as Pynchon gave us that unreadable behemoth Gravity’s Rainbow, Malick (finally) delivered The Thin Red Line (1998), an adaptation of James Jones’s war novel so dense, loopy, and impenetrable that you felt you deserved a prize for making it to the end.
That’s part of what made the 150-minute version of The New World so startling. It seemed as if Malick had finally corralled his many disparate experiments and eccentricities into a wholly groundbreaking package. The film unfolded through a series of brief, dreamy sequences, separated by frequent fades to black, as classical music by Wagner and Mozart blared on the sound track. The dialogue didn’t always match the images on the screen; the story was subsumed to a mood of lush, swooning romanticism, not unlike the films of Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love). And while Malick’s previous work often felt airless, this one was gloriously free-flowing and alive, a complete realization of Malick’s pet obsession, about a passion so intense that it rises up out of the earth and seizes the characters by the throat.
So if it wasn’t broken, why would the director feel the urge to fix it? Obviously Malick isn’t telling. But one can’t help but wonder if, by now, the director hasn’t just bought wholesale into his own mythos. Consider that, in interviews, Sarah Green has repeatedly referenced Stanley Kubrick (who similarly recut both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining after their initial releases). You get the sense that that’s exactly the comparison Malick wants to cultivate: He’s the obsessive for whom nothing is ever good enough, the artist who’s just that much more committed to his art than anyone else around. Whereas mere mortals make movies, he makes masterworks.
Except that the very greatest artists also know when to leave well enough alone. The 135-minute version of The New World is hardly a disaster: Malick tightened many sequences, while adding a few expository bits; indeed, it’s certainly much easier to follow. But the overall effect feels considerably less rapturous, transporting, and bold—a standard-issue historical epic with poetic longueurs and pretty pictures. This is the story of the most gifted director alive who turned out to be his own worst enemy.
THE ELUSIVE’S OEUVRE: Malick on DVD
Malick fans have at least one reason to rejoice: The New World disc will mark the first time the director has deigned to include a DVD extra, a making-of documentary that should offer a glimpse of the mystery man at work. But isn’t it time that Malick’s canon received the deluxe-disc treatment? Both the Badlands and Days of Heaven DVDs are vast improvements over the muddy-looking VHS editions; they would be even better with some cast member interviews or, in the case of Heaven, a documentary on the film’s contentious production (Malick reportedly threw out the original script and went wildly over budget; Haskell Wexler later claimed that he’d shot just as much of the footage as Oscar-winning cinematographer Néstor Almendros). As for The Thin Red Line, Malick will probably never record a commentary track. But surely a few of the famous actors could get together and attempt to explain to us what the heck is supposed to be going on in that movie.