by Kathie Smith
Calling director A.J. Edwards a Terrence Malick protégé, as the press materials do, may be the understatement of the year, much in the same way that calling his new film The Better Angels a narrative about Abraham Lincoln is an overstatement. For anyone who saw Malick’s The Tree of Life, prepare to be bowled over by the stylistic similarities between these two stories of patriarchal paradox and maternal grace—sans dinosaurs, avec historical figure. If you can shake the disorientation of this verbatim artistic assimilation, however, The Better Angels offers an elegant contemplation of young Abe’s life in the wilds of early 19th century Indiana—its meandering taciturn pace a thankful respite from the rote transcription of historic high points a la Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Director: A.J. Edwards
Producers: Charley Beil, Jake DeVito, Nicolas Gonda, Terrence Malick
Writer: A.J. Edwards
Cinematographer: Matthew J. Lloyd
Editor: Mathilde Bonnefoy
Music: Alex Milan
Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Braydon Denney, Cameron Mitchell Williams
Premiere: January 18, 2014 - Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 7, 2014
US Distributor: Amplify
The movie opens with a quote from Lincoln, lest we forget the man made from his formative years: “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” The quote establishes The Better Angels’ basis, but also, by film’s end, presents the duality of this statement. Lincoln in fact had two mothers: Nancy (played by Brit Marling), who died when Lincoln was nine, and Sarah (Diane Kruger), who married his father a year later. Both, at least as they are depicted in the movie, saw something special in young Abe (Braydon Denney) beyond the manual labor that his father expected of him. The Better Angels occupies the time of this transition and the space in Abe’s heart forced to deal with the loss of his mother, withstand the abuse of his father, and accept the love of a new mother.
His father Tom (Jason Clarke) has other ideas about what it is to be a man and a filial son. Showing physical prowess and ability, especially in the fields of farming and good old-fashioned wrestling, amount to far more than Abe’s propensity for reading and introspection. Abe nonetheless craved his father’s approval, accepting punishment with no complaint whether he deserved it or not. School was never part of the plan for any of Tom’s kids, and acknowledging his own son’s intellectual abilities seems to be an act that threatens to deflate Tom’s own masculinity. In an early conversation, Nancy pleads with Tom, “We can’t turn our backs on what God’s given us.” To which Tom retorts, “Knows best” (dropping the “I”) before walking away—a moment of inspired colloquial scripting in a movie with sparse dialogue. The Better Angels is a struggle, and indeed a subtle argument, against the adage that father knows best.
Shot in black and white, The Better Angels flirts with an atmosphere of hardship, but Edwards and his cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd wear their romantic aesthetics on their sleeves by unrolling beautiful shot after shot that occasionally diverges from plot altogether. The movie’s unapologetic adoration of images—fields of billowing grass, Abe gazing into the distance, books as objects of desire and resentment, and the tree canopy seen as if you were lying on your back (all perfectly lit with sun glares)—are narrated by Abe’s older cousin Dennis. If The Better Angels is in fact based on 19th century interviews with Lincoln’s family members (as has been stated), they are filtered through Dennis, who came to live with the Lincolns at the age of 18 after his parents died. Once removed, Dennis’ plainspoken but often profound thoughts work as a backdrop to the silent enigma of Abe.
Abe may be the centerpiece, but Nancy and Sarah are the sympathetic anchors thanks to the subdued performances of Marling and Kruger. Their solace, as opposed to Tom’s callousness, provided Abe with tenderness as well as understanding, separate compassions often confused for one another and often misapplied as being unique to women. The absence of their care—after Nancy dies and his father leaves to presumably find a new wife—underscores Abe’s isolation and vulnerability. Fortunately, none of this is overwrought through the emotions of the characters. Abe himself is a blank slate, perhaps appropriate for a nine-year-old who doesn’t recognize the impact being made on his life; Nancy and Sarah are stalwart prairie women (iconically so) who don’t resort to tears. The sober tone is broken by random bursts of joy that surface, with Abe as the catalyst: at school or with his stepmother or the rare moment with his father.
It goes without saying that The Better Angels is a dose of revisionist hyperbole, but what historical drama isn’t? Edwards seems unafraid to dive into that pool with a certain amount of audacity that almost makes his subject—one of the most important and symbolic men in American history—incidental. (But even he can’t resist the temptation of portraying slavery to an impressionable young Abe Lincoln in a very short and ambiguous vignette.) The Better Angels is a jaw-dropping first feature that, given its Malick endorsement as producer and presenter, can’t be accused of stealing what feels like a patented form. The real test, however, will be if Edwards can make this trope his own, because as beautiful and admirable as The Better Angels might be, it nonetheless makes its case on large portions of unyielding replication.