(Hey, let's see if I can get myself mentioned on Matt Zoller Seitz's blog! Wonder how I can do it ... hmm ... I guess I could write about The New World.)
I finally saw this last night (the 135-minute cut, of course). It's a film caught between conflicting visions: part Deren & Emerson, part Ridley Scott & AMPAS. Of course we know where Malick's "heart" is, but for whatever reason, he's devoted to making big budget films, and that means stars & multiplex releases. Consequently he must be aware of the sorts of critical entanglements and public disapproval his film was bound for, especially after The Thin Red Line (which was an immensely important film for me when I saw it at the age of 16). Malick could easily make gorgeous films about nature (and love, and history) on small budgets--Nathaniel Dorsky makes his own eye-poppingly gorgeous films without Colin Farrell, after all. Regardless of what drives Malick to make the sorts of films he does in Hollywood (and it could just be naivete, or a willful and reckless ambition to make great "popular art" as MZS repeatedly puts it, even if it's far from popular at the moment), one thing cannot be denied whatever one's opinion of Malick: he is certainly 'a thing apart.'
So (ahhhh) The New World: I liked it. I didn't love it. I was slightly underwhelmed not for the same reasons repeatedly trotted out against Malick's work: too slow, too elliptical, whatever. I'm a big boy now, and Malick at his most "out there" is pretty digestible stuff. I was initially bothered by what I felt was an arbitrary decision on Malick's part to step so heartily in mythos, disregarding the anchor of concreteness (however distant) which marked his first three films and worked well--it's not that I'm at all put off by such mythic exploration; simply that it seemed so arbitrary, so unjustified, other than by (dare I say it) naivete. I mean, how much cartwheeling Edenic splendor can we really take? But the more I thought about it the more at ease I was with Malick's decision, and it seems to be not naivete so much as decision on his part to 'act like a river,' where he simply flows toward his destination regardless of all baggage and questions.
This is why, I suspect, The New World has inspired such passionate "camps": those who share in Malick's yearning for the destination are willing accept zen-like all accoutrements (by Malick-into-Hollywood's logic) or flaws (by Hollywood-tops-Malick logic) in order to arrive at the torrent of emotion that the final sequence should ideally open up for a viewer. (Of course, if you really love this film than you may run the risk of zealotry, your comments sounding like an imitation Malick voice-over: do your best Pvt. Witt impression and intone, "O why do you flow into me like nourishing water, Terry Malick, fresh and alive? You cleanse my spirit with your stream. You show me a true New World, an inner New World.")
At any rate, The New World is ultimately a film-dream: discussing what it doesn't address and doesn't do is almost pointless--it shows that you (unwisely) think that this film is, was ever, going to offer you something like what any old Oscarbait picture will. To critique the film one must critique Malick's root conception: one can't say it's "too slow," but rather, that Malick's reasons for choosing slowness (or any other quality) are ill-advised. The New World, thankfully and with innocence both maddening and charming, offers us a glimpse of a great dream: happiness and beauty that transcend all suffering. Malick is clear to show that life and history are not rosy, but the reason why he doesn't overtly "historicize" or "politicize" his story is that he's simply not concerned with telling that story--he's not erasing it, he's not discounting it, he's simply letting it sit in its place, a place outside his "vision." He de-emphasizes history for the same reason that he ends the film the way he does, rapturously, oneirically, ecstatically--because this film is 100% a vision of life and vitality without recourse (if not without referral) to anything else. For all the pros and cons that one may associate with such singularity. (Usual caveats apply: "in my humble opinion," etc.) And for this reason I think The New World is not so much a transcendental(ist) film but--and better for it!--a film about tones & images of transcendence.