As The Better Angels would have it, there’s little about growing up in early-19th-century rural Indiana that isn’t beautiful, whether it’s the ever-present sun shining through the trees, the hut picturesquely situated in their midst, or the perfect skin and teeth of those who inhabit it. This is the home of the young Abraham Lincoln, his winsome younger sister, ruggedly handsome father, and tirelessly angelic mother. Life here is simple: light agricultural labor, quotidian tasks, and near-constant communion with nature, all captured in perpetually swaying, unremittingly pretty black-and-white images, while a venerable Southern-accented voiceover extols the virtues of Lincoln and his mother in the gaps between the bursts of soaring orchestral music. The watchword here would appear to be that there’s no such thing as too much beauty.
But even when you factor in the seraphic sentiment of the Lincoln quote that opens the film (“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother”) and the inevitable rose-tinting effect of collective memory, all this gracelessly additive beauty still bludgeons more than it entrances. Instead of allowing his painstakingly framed compositions to breathe, director A.J. Edwards seems more interested in drowning them in superfluous stylistic tics, as if pretty image plus busy jump cuts plus string section plus endless, penetrating sunshine were a sure-fire formula for profundity. It’s no coincidence that the few moments in which he slightly takes his foot off the pedal are the most effective, such as the set of fluid, unadorned shots that take in a stream becoming a roaring river, before the roar gently segues into the sound of a horse and cart.
The monotonous wall-to-wall beauty also has the unfortunate side effect of further flattening the film’s already wispy narrative arc. Whether focusing on hardship or joy, a dilapidated interior or an immaculate one, or one celestial mother figure as opposed to her replacement, the same reverent, monochromatic presentation used at each and every juncture saps the film of any real sense of progression, transition, or tension. While there’s nothing wrong with creating a plotless, endlessly present-tense tone poem, this approach clashes considerably with the film’s over-literal desire to include the moments that apparently formed Lincoln’s worldview. Unlike, say, Albert Serra, whose films take his famous protagonists’ narratives as a given rather than spelling them out, Edwards still has one foot in hagiography, apparently unaware that the snapshots of solitary slaves, frowned-on injustices, or suitably progressive literature perfunctorily dropped into the mix to this end often feel more cheap than edifying.
Yet the one figure that truly towers over The Better Angels isn’t the saintly future U.S. president at its heart. Even taking into consideration the fact the Edwards edited To the Wonder, it’s hard to recall a film so immensely and reductively in thrall to the work of another director. While tracing all that the film lifts from Terence Malick isn’t undiverting (the drawling voiceover intoned by a marginal character from Days of Heaven, the awestruck approach to an American foundation myth from The New World, the same whirling camerawork from each and every one of his films), doing so also reveals how little Edwards adds to the original Malick template, with his meek introduction of black and white of all things feeling more like an additional throwback than an innovation. Ultimately, how much you get from the film will likely depend on your take on Malick’s recent output: for all those restlessly awaiting his next move, it’s a perfectly pedestrian stopgap; for everyone else, it’s an excellent treatise on the perils of idolatry.