A cursory IMDb search shows that The Better Angels’s writer-director, A.J. Edwards, worked as an editorial intern on Terrence Malick’s The New World, one of five editors on To the Wonder, and as a “key artistic consultant” on The Tree of Life. It’s not quite right to say that The Better Angels exhibits Malick’s influence; it plays more like a student film assignment in copping another filmmaker’s style from stem to stern.
Set in the Indiana backwoods where Abraham Lincoln (newcomer Braydon Denney) lived as a child, The Better Angels takes a demonstrably Malickian approach to American mythmaking, locating the core of the 16th American president’s eminent integrity in his hardscrabble upbringing. Both embraced and tested by his salt-of-the-earth father (Jason Clarke) and doted on by his loving mother (Brit Marling), young Abe is shown to learn the values that would come to define his character, at least in the American historical memory: reason, self-control, morality, empathy—those titular “better angels of our nature” that he would index in his first inaugural address. As he works the land and, eventually, goes to school, there are intimations that the young man is meant for better things.
It’s not just the prosaic approach the mythically outsized hallmarks of Americana that makes Edwards’s first directorial effort feel like a Malick movie. It’s the cinematography. Though shot in warm black-and-white monochrome, Edwards lingers on textures and surfaces, captures the palpitating sun shooting through the Indiana woods. The Malick influence is also there in the film’s structure: ethereal, disjointed, carried along by different voiceovers and snatches of overheard conversations, attempting the same sort of collective-unconsciousness thing that Malick more or less nailed with The Thin Red Line and The New World. It’s also there in the gamboling. So much gamboling! Did people really gambol (and twirl, and frolic, and romp, and sort of generally lark about) like this in the 19th century? Did they ever?
It may be unfair to hold a first-time filmmaker to the standards of one of the medium’s most accomplished talents. But Edwards presents little alternative. The film is so beholden to the moods and manners of Malick that even its more estimable elements (the acting, the cinematography, the very conceit of making a movie about Abraham Lincoln that focuses exclusively on what’s ostensibly the least interesting part of his life, sort of a Younger Mr. Lincoln) are diffused into the ether. Edwards’s homage to his master plays like sycophantic, if well-meaning, imitation, like a kid trying to impress his dad by swinging his golf clubs or clumsily strumming a guitar. Still, as Terrence Malick movies go, it’s better than To the Wonder.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.