The Better Angels

When a signature authorial style surfaces in a film, it's typically a directorial imprimatur. But occasionally a movie emerges that wears its producing influences on its sleeve -- take, for example, David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn’s productions during the Golden Age of Hollywood. A.J. Edwards' The Better Angels falls into that category: Terrence...read more

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Reviewed by Nathan Southern
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When a signature authorial style surfaces in a film, it's typically a directorial imprimatur. But occasionally a movie emerges that wears its producing influences on its sleeve -- take, for example, David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn’s productions during the Golden Age of Hollywood. A.J. Edwards' The Better Angels falls into that category: Terrence Malick produced it, and even watching the film sans that knowledge, one would be struck by the similarity of this picture to Malick's <I>chef d'oeuvre</I> The Tree of Life. Like Tree, Angels places an overwhelmingly strong emphasis on aesthetics, the onscreen environment, and gauzy cinematography, and has only the wispiest traces of a story in order to allow life to unfold before the lens at its own leisurely, impressionistic pace. Unlike Tree, however, Angels zeroes in on real-life historical figures; it transpires in the early 19th century and concerns itself with the boyhood of an American icon: President Abraham Lincoln. We follow young Abe (Braydon Denney) as he faces harsh discipline from his father Tom (Jason Clarke), the tragic death of his mother (Brit Marling), and ultimately, the arrival of a stepmother named Sarah (Diane Kruger).

The early stages of this picture feel exhilarating and frustrating in about equal measure. On a positive note: As shot by Matt Lloyd in gorgeous black-and-white, the oneiric, fog-drenched landscapes of Middle America resurrect rural Indiana c. 1815 (with Upstate New York doubling for Hoosier country) and capture such a sense of historical verisimilitude that we feel we've literally stepped into the past. The onscreen action, however, feels perversely alienating. The first act suffers from dimly lit interior shots, supporting characters who are practically impossible to identify, and whispered, barely articulate dialogue. We feel totally at sea, and wonder if the film may be headed for disaster.

All is not lost, though; over the course of the movie, the story and characters attain greater elucidation, the dialogue grows clearer and more meaningful, and we find the plot considerably easier to follow as it moves forward in time. It improves exponentially with the arrival of Sarah, since she serves as the catalyst who turns the boy's life around and inadvertently shapes his destiny and that of the country, and she also bumps up the pace several notches and gets the story moving. It's not only an extraordinary performance, but a surprising one. Kruger is hardly a newcomer; she's a seasoned veteran with a great deal of experience, and seems to relish tough, earthy roles in films like Inglourious Basterds and Farewell, My Queen. In Angels, she cuts dramatically against the grain of her onscreen persona by portraying a woman who is essentially the embodiment of Olympian goodness, of purity and light. This casting represented a great gamble on the part of Edwards, but it delivers. As young Abe falls in love with Sarah, so do we; we believe almost instantly in this woman's ability to perceive the vast potential in this little boy and nourish and cultivate it, as when she takes full responsibility for overseeing his education. Although the argument lies beyond the scope of this review, one could even make a case that the opening 30 or 40 minutes of the picture constitute a deliberate act of alienation on the part of Edwards, as the film really does seem to suggest that Sarah pulled Abe up out of dark, maddening chaos.

Edwards' narrative strategy is also diverting and compelling, though less original. It feels honed and forged in the fires of Malick's technique -- in particular, his ability to gently drop fleeting external insights into a character's mind-set and emotional state, much as early silent-film narratives once did. For instance, we get a startling scene in which young Abe sits in the woods and watches in shock as several chained and yoked slaves are dragged past him. It's yet another piece in the overarching puzzle set forth by the movie: how this shy, initially illiterate man of backwoods Americana evolved into the legendary figure we know from the history books, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and championed the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. In order to solve this enigma, we're asked to read into every iota of Lincoln's behavior. Appropriately enough, a prodigious amount of research went into the tiniest onscreen details. This aspect of the film recalls not only Malick, but the late Roberto Rossellini -- particularly his 1966 biopic The Rise of Louis XIV, where we learn more about the Sun King from the way he puts on his stockings or holds his fork than from any act of public diplomacy.

The film as a whole asks a great deal of the audience, not only demanding our close scrutiny, but our submission to its deliberate rhythms. Not everyone will be willing to give it the painstaking attention it deserves, but those who do will find it rewarding and substantive.

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  • Released: 2014
  • Rating: PG
  • Review: When a signature authorial style surfaces in a film, it's typically a directorial imprimatur. But occasionally a movie emerges that wears its producing influences on its sleeve -- take, for example, David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn’s productions during… (more)

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