One of America’s greatest weaknesses is its hunger to deify its past leaders. The urge behind it is understandable: Turning men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln into totems, we give our children heroes to emulate, passing along values to future generations in attractive packages. But the problem comes when we reduce complicated figures into paragons of virtue: How can any of us (let alone our elected officials) compete with perfection?
Seeking the humanity behind the man, The Better Angels is a striking attempt to show us Lincoln’s childhood in a fresh way. This is a noble effort, which is why its miscalculation is all the more disappointing.
Written and directed by A.J. Edwards, the film stars newcomer Braydon Denney as a boy in Indiana in the early 19th century. Living in the woods with his mother (Brit Marling) and father (Jason Clarke), young Abraham is almost a peripheral character in his own drama, a conscious choice on Edwards’ part to give us the sense of a lad quietly taking in everything around him. As his mother lies dying and his father buries his feelings in manly stoicism, Lincoln is portrayed as emotionally adrift, too young to be equipped to absorb such an emotional blow.
His mother’s death opens the door to new people entering Lincoln’s life, but the specificity of the storytelling matters less than the way in which The Better Angels presents its tale. A longtime associate of Terrence Malick—serving as an editor on a few of his films, as well as a second-unit director—Edwards has chosen to shoot his feature debut in a style that emulates his mentor. Assisted by cinematographer Matthew Lloyd, Edwards envisions Lincoln’s formative years as a dreamlike, swirling-camera elegy, Lloyd’s shots emulating Malick’s Steadicam solemnity, the one deviation being that The Better Angels is in black-and-white.
Edwards is hardly the first filmmaker to be influenced by Malick’s awed reverence for nature, his affection for the unspoiled innocence of childhood, or his loving portrayal of ethereal, somewhat distant female characters. But in trying to resurrect Lincoln’s early years from the musty pages of history, The Better Angels has created its own exaggerated unreality. Drawing from sources like Carl Sandburg’s biography The Prairie Years, Edwards is clearly striving for a certain kind of historical accuracy, yet the overall effect is a movie that distractingly, frustratingly apes the design (both formally and thematically) of The Tree of Life. Once again, we have an impressionable boy in thrall to his intimidating, masculine father and angelic, melancholy mother. Once again, the camera catches intimate moments in extreme close-up—that is, when it’s not swooping through the scene like a butterfly. And once again, we’re left with impressions of individuals rather than concrete characterizations.
To be sure, there are pleasures to be had from such an approach. The black-and-white palette is luscious, and Malick’s techniques remain fecund. But The Better Angels is curiously inert, reducing its bucolic Indiana setting to a picture-book diorama. You can see what Edwards is after—he wants to make Lincoln’s little-known childhood vivid, vital, hyper-real—but the characters never come into focus. Clarke’s hulking father is an abstraction, and not a particularly impressive one. Likewise, Marling is all doe-eyed martyrdom, replaced by a new woman, played by Diane Kruger, who is another earth-mother construct. Denney has a palpable playfulness—he comes to life in the scenes with Kruger—but there’s always a point where provocative ambiguity slides into willful opacity. This Lincoln is such a mystery that he evaporates, Edwards more interested in establishing the environment that influenced our 16th president than in populating his fanciful world with actual people. While Edwards may think that Americans too easily worship their past, the trouble with The Better Angels is that he offers nothing as a substitute.
Director: A.J. Edwards
Writer: A.J. Edwards
Starring: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Braydon Denney
Release Date: Nov. 7, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.