Catch a few glimpses of A.J. Edwards’ directorial debut, The Better Angels, and you could be tricked into thinking you’re watching a Terrence Malick film. As the end credits attest, Malick is the primary producer, although his name’s appearance once the film fades to black feels redundant. More intimate in scope but just as evocative and stunningly photographed as his rural-set modern classics, The Better Angels owes much of its feeling to the director’s mentor. And, that is not always a bad thing. However, one gets the feeling that the new filmmaker is more impressed with Malick than Abraham Lincoln, whose pre-pubescent life is the focus of this first feature.
The film opens in 1817 in the Indiana backwoods where a young boy explores the wilderness, paddling down the river and playing in the fields. When he sticks out his chin, it is clear from an uncanny resemblance to a certain historical figure who the boy is. (He is played by newcomer Braydon Denney, who could also pass for a much younger, less rugged Joaquin Phoenix.) Abe’s father, Tom (a heavy-footed, half-mumbling Jason Clarke), was punishing, while his mother Nancy (Brit Marling) was peaceful. Tom tended the fields and took his boy hunting, while Nancy tended to the home. When Abe starts reading The Bible and Robinson Crusoe, she tries to convince her husband to send their son to school.
The dynamic between the mother, father and their contemplative son – he is a strict authority figure trying to teach his boy how to fight and take responsibility, she is a luminous woman who does her most to protect her boy – recalls the one from The Tree of Life. That film, directed by Malick, had Brad Pitt in the role of the pragmatic father and Jessica Chastain portraying the patient mother, and gave both characters more agency in the story, despite viewing much of it through the lens of their eldest son (who was played by Hunter McCracken.) In comparison, Edwards’ film shows just a few moments of familial conflict; conveniently, Nancy abandons the film a third of the way through. Tom eventually finds another saintly woman, Sarah (Diane Kruger), to be Abe’s surrogate mother.
The look of The Better Angels is endlessly tied to Malick’s lush visual spectrum. (Director of photography Matthew J. Lloyd does a terrific Emmanuel Lubezki impression, even with just a black-and-white palette.) Few filmmakers tend to notice the beauty of still shots of ordinary objects as much as Malick, so Edwards does his most to focus on these filmic still-life shots, of dust tumbling into a house as if a spirit had entered or water dripping off a sheet as it dries. Even in a spacious shots, like when Abe and his friends drift down a river, there are jump cuts (yet another Malick trademark). Lloyd’s camera is always alive, flowing through the reeds, circling the rural setting and swinging up from the ground to give the film a lightness of touch that reflects the youth of the central character. In some scenes, the director brings the camera down to young Abe’s height, so that two-shots with him and his father sometimes decapitate Tom’s head from the frame.
As the young Mr. Lincoln, Denney impresses, able to beckon tears from his warm eyes in more emotionally devastating moments without turning to child-like theatrics. However, his character is nearly rendered mute, his placid and reserved nature suiting the evocative material but giving little insight into his personality and moral compass. Meanwhile, Clarke, Marling and Kruger do what they can with the material, but the vagueness of Edwards’ script does not allow for much soul-searching.
Aesthetically and characteristically, Edwards’ film is the opposite of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Lincoln. That 2012 film had a rich ensemble cast, was shot almost entirely indoors and contained Tony Kushner’s verbose, period-perfect prose. The Better Angels, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, has probably fewer that a dozen characters who speak, relies mostly on exterior scenes and contains probably as much dialogue whispered over voice-over as spoken aloud.
What neither film does rather well is manage to encompass a vivid life and times of the 16th President of the United States. The title of Spielberg’s film suggested a biopic, albeit it was one that only gave hints to the man’s complexity. Meanwhile, The Better Angels shows us how a couple of small moments may have shaped the boy to become the man he was; however, these seminal experiences could have filled a few brief flashbacks of a more comprehensive biographical drama. (In the film, no character even says the boy’s name.) The few voice-overs and plot points could very well fill a storybook about Lincoln, but are not enough to propel the drama to a feature’s length.
At the start of The Better Angels, Edwards takes a few moments to show snow blowing over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Lloyd dips the camera to a low angle of the monument’s erect pillars, hinting that we will see a similar strong foundation be laid over the next 90 minutes. However, although that angle of the pillars standing tall will be mirrored with shots of skinny trees looming over the Lincoln home, Edwards’ film fails to illuminate with much power or depth how these early years influenced the future president. The Better Angels is more concerned with showing how the external environment shaped the man, rather than how he grew from interior struggle. As filmmaking, it is pretty. But as drama, Edwards’ debut lacks power.
With The Better Angels, director A.J. Edwards is more concerned with paying homage to an American visionary (filmmaker Terrence Malick) than exploring one (Abraham Lincoln, the film’s subject).