Review: The Better Angels
PLOT: The early days of a young Abraham Lincoln growing up is explored. As a young boy living destitute with his family in the Indiana wilderness, the tragedy he faces and the obstacles he fights hint at the historic future he ultimately holds.
Watching the new film from writer/director A.J. Edwards THE BETTER ANGELS, you are very likely to get the feeling you are taking in another director altogether. In this biographical tale of young Abraham Lincoln, there is more than a hint of auteur Terrence Malick who has a producing credit - in the visual style and pacing. This is no real surprise as Edwards has collaborated with the famed director on such films as THE TREE OF LIFE, THE NEW WORLD as well as an editor credit on TO THE WONDER. However, this old-fashioned, black and white feature is slightly (if only a little) devoted to a singular topic. It is one that lackadaisically explores a young man who would become one of the most important United States Presidents in history.
Not unlike Malick, the story is told with very little dialogue. Told from a narrative standpoint from his cousin, the script recalls factual events yet with melancholy prose. Far more interested in a fading memory than words, this slow paced production lingers on a family struggling to get by. Young Abe (Braydon Denney) is challenged by his father Tom (Jason Clarke), all the while his loving mother Nancy (Brit Marling) wants more for her son, more than she can teach him. After she passes away due to milk sickness, Tom brings home another wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger) who also sees promise in the boy. With the focus on his formative years, we are given brief glimpses into what made Abe to be the man he became.
Normally it wouldnt be fair to a filmmaker to constantly bring up a famed director with whom he had worked, but it is impossible not to here. Edwards has created a very elegant and sometimes captivating canvas that seems homage to Malick. Nature is just as much a character as Abe or his family here. The characters move together yet nary communicate with language. The landscape of Indiana is beautifully realized with a picturesque view of the majestic trees or an oncoming storm. The choice to create these images in black and white is an especially poetic one, as it lends a sense of veracity to the early 1800s setting.
Before viewing I read next to nothing about this project, and for some of its running time I was nearly unaware that it wasnt the man behind BADLANDS at the helm. However, with THE BETTER ANGELS there is a more singular telling to it. As the narrator speaks in his thick Southern accent about going over yonder or questioning wanna know what kinda boy he was, there is a smallness to this story that doesnt quite reach the scope of THE TREE OF LIFE or even the lesser TO THE WONDER. Edwards follows almost too closely in the footsteps of his presumed mentor that you have to question how much of this was his own vision. And if it is completely his own then there is clearly a ton of inspiration that is bleeding into his work.
For the first half of THE BETTER ANGELS, it is a slightly difficult watch. With only subtle hints at what this is about, there is not even a mention of Abe Lincoln throughout. This is a story of a young boy growing up dirt poor with a loving family, all of whom face very tough times. For the viewer it can also be tough times. As pretty as this film may be the first half or so moves far too slow and only offers occasional moments of emotional connection. Brit Marling does a fine job as Abes sickly mother, yet once Diane Kruger arrives she seems to light a spark. It is then that this ANGEL seemed to rise from the ashes and present a more layered show. The actress is marvelous here, and the moments she shares with Clarke and Denney transcend the lull created in the beginning.
If Malicks moody and poetic images dont translate to great art for you, than this is far from a BETTER ANGEL for the money. However, the stunning black and white images and the picturesque beauty filmmaker Edwards conjures up is a worthy effort if not all that original. Especially good is the casting of Kruger who is absolutely luminous here in a truly moving performance. However, this is difficult to fully recommend unless you can truly appreciate a slow-paced and lyrical ode to Abe.