The New World

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The Whispering Wind
Matt Zoller Seitz on The New World

As Terrence Malick’s The New World eases into its climactic movement, its heroine Pocahontas enters the latest (but not last) phase of her journey. Once a Powhatan princess, she became the lover of convict-turned-explorer John Smith; then a diplomat taking pity on Smith’s stubborn, hapless countrymen; then a pariah cast out by her father as a betrayer; then a slowly assimilating Englishwoman and grieving (presumed) widow, deceived into thinking Smith dead; then a ward—and later, lover—of a kind Englishman, John Rolfe; the toast of Rolfe’s mother country; then a contented wife living in a high-ceilinged manor in which she welcomes Smith as her guest.

Now she is about to become, in Rolfe’s words, “but a fond memory” to a son that barely knew her.

Pocahontas’s toddler-aged son runs along a hedgerow amid a flock of sheep. The camera follows like a tagalong ghost. The wind comes up.

The wind signals that the movie is over—that the end is near.

But what follows is a beginning.

Malick understands the aesthetic potential of sound. The sound design on his four features—Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005)—marries precision and depth and is as meticulously timed and orchestrated as his editing. In a review of The New World, I described the director’s style as “epic naturalism,” a mode that combines “classical Hollywood production values (including Cinemascope photography and an eclectic symphonic score) with a documentary approach to narrative, characterization, and editing.” These aspects might seem incompatible—Hollywood gloss plus indie grit. But in Malick’s films they work in tandem, and sound design is a big part of the reason why.

Malick’s attention to detail is positively Kubrickian. I once got an email from a researcher entrusted with gathering bird sounds for The New World. She told me that Malick had contacted her and her ornithologist colleagues asking if they could help fill the movie’s soundscape with recordings of every Jamestown-area bird that still existed today. If a particular bird was extinct, he wanted a recording of a species that was somewhere in the ballpark. They spent weeks gathering birdsong recordings, and they all ended up in the movie, mostly unadorned.

Like Malick’s visual style—which mingles handheld close-ups and majestic tracking shots, fleetingly held images and long takes, carefully composed tableaux and inserts of trees, rocks, blossoms, ivy, animals, and insects that feel as immediate as snapshots—the soundtrack’s interplay of ambient sound and human voices, music and narration, foreground and background noise, feels loose, organic, spontaneous, almost documentary-immediate, never like the product of hermetically sealed studio wizardry (even if that is, in fact, what you’re hearing). One rarely hears overt distortion applied to a particular sound effect in order to characterize it, as is often the case in modern auteur cinema (I’m thinking of the expressionistically distorted effects common to the films of Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg, to name three of Malick’s most durable contemporaries).

And Malick is more attentive than most to the physical experience of the natural world. He often roots quick-cut montages with insistent music and narration in bedrocks of natural sound: creaking trees, rushing river water, whirring insects, chirping birds. Think of the haven-by-the-river sequence in Badlands, which solidifies what might otherwise be a disjointed sequence covering several weeks by laying the visuals atop ongoing music cues filled out with running water, rustling vegetation, and bird songs. Or the long sections of The Thin Red Line held together by the sound of wind pushing through tall grass. Or the slowly building scritch-scritch noise that heralds the grasshopper swarm in Days of Heaven—a sound we subliminally recognize because Malick introduced it, in limited form, earlier in the film, when the characters weren’t as distressed and the insects seemed like just one more part of the landscape.

These sounds, like the images they accompany, serve as both documentary representations of experience and personifications of abstract, mythic forces: nature, God, fate. They’re all components of an aesthetic that leaves final interpretation up to the individual viewer. Do Malick’s characters have free will and moral choice, or are they just being swept along by wind and water? Is it either or neither, or both? The films are built in such a way that you can call it however you like.

Narration. Dialogue. Body language. Reactions. Images. Music. Sound effects. They’re all of a piece.

The overriding sense is that these characters are being buffeted and transformed by powerful forces, yet they’re so immense and multifaceted that neither they nor we can discern any particular pattern or intent. The world does what it does, and you try to ride it out.

* * * * *

The sound of the wind at the end of The New World is similarly complex and contradictory. You can read it as a grand gesture by the director (the closest thing to God in this universe) or as wind, plain and simple.

The wind in the garden should summon dread and inconsolable sadness. It should warn of the start of a concluding chapter—the beginning of the end. And the first time you see The New World, the event itself is devastating. (“Rebecca, your mother, fell ill in our outward passage at Gravesend,” Rolfe says, reading a letter to his son in voiceover.)

And yet Malick, a hippie transcendentalist, doesn’t frame it that way.

From the start of the film through the arrival of the wind, the movie has been filled with images of birth and death, arrayed in an unceasing, borderless flow of music, dialogue, and sound effects—a continuum of experience that makes cinema’s standard use of the word “continuity” (orderliness of plot, consistency of objects in the frame) seem small.

Pocahontas enters the movie naked, swimming through blue-green water and then rising toward sunlight. She’s a nearly grown woman, yet the imagery suggests birth (or is it rebirth?), and the arrival of the English signals the end of a certain way of life (for both parties) and the start of another. John Smith is nearly killed twice in the film, then granted a reprieve (by his commanding officer and by Pocahontas, who throws her body on top of his, preventing his execution); the literally life-affirming events contribute to the Powhatan culture’s death (and absorption into European culture).

More endings/beginnings: in the film’s final minutes, John Rolfe and his son board a ship bound for the New World, taking Pocahontas home. According to the historical record, she died on that ship. But her death is enacted many shots prior to that one, in images of Pocahontas’s son looking for his mother in the hedge maze. The shot of Rolfe and his son on the deck of the ship—the ship bearing Pocahontas “home”—is followed by a shot of the ship itself. A lifetime of exposure to traditional film grammar primes us for a shot of the ship headed away from us, its outward direction implying an end. Yet it’s coming towards us. And it is silhouetted against the sky. It’s black, abstracted: a ferryman’s boat.

A silhouetted shot of the Jamestown marshland rhymes with a shot of the concrete channel through which Rolfe’s ship departs England; the similarly framed, similarly contrast-y compositions suggest that the first shot is a rhyme, or a reflection, of the second shot—that perhaps the channel and the marsh are different visualizations of the same gateway. Images of the sea join with shots of rushing rivers and streams. The film ends with a low-angled shot of old trees reaching for the sky—an image conceived (!) in the same spirit as the amniotic image of Pocahontas swimming toward the sun, and subsequent shots of Pocahontas lifting her arms toward the sun and rain as if offering an embrace.

The woman at the start of the film and the woman at the end have the same name, and they are the same person. Yet they have little in common. The climactic scene that starts with the sound of wind unexpectedly—and reassuringly—plays as much as a beginning as an end. This retroactively makes the film’s official “opening” seem less a starting point than a marker in an unbroken loop. (Not Gravesend: grave’s end.)

The same recording of the same piece—the prelude to Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, “Thus, We Begin in the Greenish Twilight of the Rhine”—appears three times in The New World, in the beginning, the middle, and the end.

The film’s only figurative character appears in this section: the black-painted warrior sitting opposite Pocahontas’ deathbed. No sooner have we met him than the figure bolts from the bedroom and runs into the garden. I’ve seen it written that this figure represents Pocahontas’ soul leaving her body. While this is entirely possible, I like to think that he’s death, that he’d been sitting there for years waiting on Pocahontas; then suddenly he realizes his moment had passed, that he’d missed his chance, and he runs into the garden trying to find her in the maze. Perhaps this reaper character is a mirror of the heroine’s son: death, life’s brother.

Taken together, Malick’s multiplicity of mirrored images and situations, repeated music tracks and sound effects suggest that the story of The New World isn’t meant to be interpreted as self-contained and linear—locked-off from the rest of time and space—but as a microcosm of a larger cycle, a lone rotation of a clock’s second hand. When spring and fall arrive, we open our windows. The sound of wind moving through hallways and rooms reminds us that one phase, one chapter, is ending, and another is beginning (or vice-versa); that we’re forever leaving one place, one space, and entering another.

We’re born to die. Our remains seep into the water and soil and feed the trees.