The phrase "history in the making," though convenient, doesn't really mean much. History is what gets sorted out later, when the causes and effects can be seen a little more clearly. While it's happening, history is usually impossible to sort out from everyday life. Writing and directing the fourth film of his four-decade career, Terrence Malick seems to have had those thoughts on history in mind when he made The New World. In the film's opening shots, English ships glide into the marshes of a land that's only recently been dubbed "Virginia." From the shore, a small group of Powhatans watch with curiosity and apprehension. Malick draws the moment out. Nothing's happened yet, but something's bound to; it's a point of innocence in which history could go in any direction.
Edens of one variety or another have haunted each of Malick's films, from the perverse, blood-soaked traveling paradise of Badlands to the war-spoiled beauty of The Thin Red Line. His approach fits comfortably into the story of the Jamestown colony, the chapter in American history in which the relationship between Native Americans and Old World colonists most closely resembles a moment of original sin. Malick shoots it with a you-are-there immediacy that suggests years of research, and in a meditative style that's entirely his own. However complicated the historical issues at play, the poetic introspection that consumes The New World's characters could only take place in a Terrence Malick movie.
But, here at least, history and lyrical drift go together surprisingly well. Colin Farrell plays John Smith as a quintessential Malick hero. The only one of his crew to look at his new home with open eyes, he's sent upriver on a mission to meet the local chief. After a skirmish and a tense meeting, Farrell faces an apparent execution, until the chief's young daughter (Q'Orianka Kilcher, playing Pocahontas, though that name is never used) pleads for his life. The two form a tender, tenuous relationship that, by all rights, should never have happened, and which carries over, in one form or another, past Farrell's return to the famine-stricken Jamestown and beyond.
A lesser filmmaker would have steered The New World into allegory, but Malick resists (and the unmistakable humanity of the cast, particularly Kilcher's film-anchoring turn, wouldn't let him anyway.) He also, as usual, resists some elements that most viewers expect from film, elements like a clear plot and discernible forward momentum. It's hard to miss them too much. Like The Thin Red Line, The New World is an immersive experience made powerful by the accumulation of individual moments. Here it's the colonization of America rather than the bloodshed of Guadalcanal, but the approach remains the same. Malick peers beneath the surface of world-shaping events to find them filled with souls trying to figure out what their lives mean amid the din and destruction of what will someday be called history.