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The shadow of producer Terrence Malick looms heavily over writer-director A.J. Edwards’ feature debut, The Better Angels. This meticulously researched, lyrically filmed evocation of a significant transitional period in the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln relies far more upon impressionistic glimpses of rough Indiana farm life, circa 1817-19, than upon conventionally scripted and staged dramatic scenes as it endeavors to convey key factors in the formation and growth of the future president’s character. As impressive as it is in many ways, the film is so beholden to Malick, and particularly to his style as it has evolved over the comparatively busy past decade, that it comes across as a work at once freshly conceived and bluntly imitative. Its world premiere in the New Frontier section of the Sundance Film Festival rightly identifies this black-and-white feature as a self-consciously rarified artwork of interest primarily to the cinematic corps d’elite.
Malick reportedly initiated research on this project with the idea of possibly directing it himself but at an early stage handed it off to Edwards, who entered Malick’s circle in 2004 as a co-cameraman on the documentary The Making of the New World and subsequently was second unit director and co-editor of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and the upcoming Knight of Cups. In other words, Edwards is as well versed in Malick’s methods as it is possible to be, and the influence is immediately felt in the swirling, darting, deep-focus cinematography, the preference for voiceover commentary instead of extended dialogue and the extensive use of classical music (Anton Bruckner is a major source here, as it has been for Malick lately).
With narration derived from the text of an actual interview with Lincoln’s last surviving cousin, Dennis Hanks (who lived with him most of the time until the aspiring lawyer was 21), The Better Angels begins with brief shots of the imposing, lifeless marble of the Lincoln Memorial, then plunks itself down into the thick of nature, a bucolic swath of forest and farmland where the impoverished Lincolns have settled after leaving Kentucky.
There is the seemingly inevitable Malicky imagery of girls twirling around a maypole, of everyday chores, of gamboling in the woods, rather too much of it photographed with the camera rushing toward the subject while held very low to the ground, creating significant wide-angle distortion. Still, much of cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd’s monochromatic work is very beautiful to observe, as it devotes itself to portraying the glories and hardships of isolated farm life. Gradually, some of the individuals onscreen are identified. Dominant is Tom Lincoln (Jason Clarke), a stern disciplinarian of very few words who repeatedly takes the whip to his eight-year-old son, Abe (Braydon Denney), who is already showing signs of preferring book learning to physical labor. “He’s got a gift,” someone is heard to say. Still, he is put to work tilling and sowing, chopping wood and hunting with his dad.
Although this life has its idyllic aspects, its overbearing toughness and uncertainties prevail. Despair sets in when cows begin to die mysteriously, then suddenly Abe’s mother, Nancy (Brit Marling), takes ill and expires as well. Leaving Abe and older sister Sarah (McKenzie Blankenship) alone on the isolated farm, Tom departs for Kentucky, from which, at length, he returns with a new wife of surpassing beauty, Sarah (Diane Kruger, whose presence here illustrates that idealized Hollywood-style casting extends even to this sort of indie venture; a photograph of the real Sarah suggests a resemblance to a character you wouldn’t want to meet in the woods in a Grimm’s fairy tale).
So starts the process of the integration of two families — widow Sarah has three children of her own — as well as the growing Abe’s acquisition of certain skills and interests that would importantly attach to his legend — wielding an ax, wrestling, reading (The Pilgrim’s Progress and Defoe, for starters) and eventual formal schooling. “He won’t stay in these woods forever,” his observant teacher predicts. “He’ll make his mark.”
Thanks to its indelible image-making and dedication to what could be termed lyrical realism, The Better Angels notably succeeds in creating a vivid impression of the physical and familial circumstances that crucially shaped the heart and mind of the future 16th president, which was certainly the filmmakers’ central goal. There is also time to reflect upon the extraordinary and arguably unprecedented sociopolitical conditions that permitted a man from such humble circumstances to achieve such power and greatness. When, in the history of the West, had such a leap been possible before the existence of the United States? How was it that such a poor boy came to occupy the memorial shown at the beginning?
Edwards’ approach is paradoxical in that the film’s historical aspects have been so minutely researched even though the prevailing storytelling approach is impressionistic rather than detailed in either a dramatic or documentary sense; much basic information — the reason for the formerly affluent Tom Lincoln’s newfound poverty and his move from a slave state to a free one, the specific cause of Nancy’s death, anyone’s interior life — is passed over in favor of pure image-making. But the film succeeds in that it provides a more vivid sense of this sort of 19th century childhood — and Lincoln’s youth in particular — than most people would have had before..
Adorned by surgingly dramatic music much of the time, the film was shot in the Mohonk Preserve in the Appalachians, 90 miles north of New York City.
Production: Brothers K Productions
Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Braydon Denney, Cameron Mitchell Williams, McKenzie Blankenship
Director: A.J. Edwards
Screenwriter: A.J. Edwards
Producers: Terrence Malick, Nicolas Gonda, Charley Beil, Jake DeVito
Executive producers: Jason Krigsfeld, Joseph Krigsfeld, Suzanne Deal Booth, Antoine Douaihy
Director of photography: Matthew J. Lloyd
Production designer: Caroline Hanania
Costume designer: Lisa Tomczeszyn
Editor: Alex Milan
Music: Hanan Townshend
No rating, 94 minutes
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