‘The Better Angels’ Review: A Confident Debut Burdened by Its Muse

By  · Published on November 6th, 2014


Numerous filmmakers have made their influences into mentors. Paul Thomas Anderson’s ’90s films were deeply indebted to the work of Robert Altman, with whom he developed a personal friendship, and even worked as an uncredited “backup director” for The Prairie Home Companion. And the well-publicized friendships between Peter Bogdanovich and titans of classic cinema (Howard Hawks, John Ford, Orson Welles) have threatened to obscure the notable films Bogdanovich actually made as his primary contribution to the world of movies.

Many filmmakers hew themselves close to those whom they give homage, either personally or aesthetically. Yet this relationship typically produces a sort of third party amongst a collision of influences, a meeting of minds and personalities that shapes films which, while heavily indebted to what came before, use the past as a platform for expressing something notable on its own.

That’s what makes A.J. Edwards’ debut work, The Better Angels, such a curious cinematic object. It’s a film that not only bears a significant debt to the style of Terrence Malick (and openly, proudly so), but produces such a perfect exercise in Malick-style filmmaking that it never quite reveals an autonomous personality of its own. It’s hard to think of a more confident, more elegantly executed debut feature than The Better Angels, but it’s also hard to think of any other strong debut that leaves the personality of its filmmaker obscured as deeply in the shadows as this.

The Better Angels is an elegiac, naturalist depiction of the early years of Abraham Lincoln’s (Braydon Denney) life in rural Indiana, where he contends with a gruff father (Jason Clarke), the burden of a deceased mother (Brit Marling) and a demanding yet bittersweet life of work on American soil. Through elliptical depictions of daily toil, adult correspondences and quotidian family interactions, the film charts the path that – as placing American history’s most myth-laden character implies – implicitly enables Abe’s history-shaping future: a formal education encouraged by his father’s second wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger), that prevented him from a path relegated exclusively to farm labor.

The Better Angels is, as its trailer suggests, a marvel to look at and hear, a symphony of feeling calibrated through a delicate cinematic approach that privileges evocations of the human experience over narrative.

In tackling a mammoth historical figure made iconic in cinema from directors as towering and variant as Griffith and Spielberg, The Better Angels succeeds, in part, in distancing its subject from the limitations of the biopic, freeing Honest Abe to exist outside the mandates of hagiography towards an imagined depiction of his everyday sensory life. But this earnest film still romanticizes its subject, and choice lines by Sarah Lincoln and a schoolteacher (Wes Bentley) do nothing to discourage this film from embracing a familiar narrative that situates its hero on a path to inevitable greatness.

Edwards was the editor of Terrance Malick’s To the Wonder, and Malick is listed as producer of The Better Angels. While Edwards’ interpersonal correspondence with the notoriously reclusive Malick can only be a subject of speculation, Edwards’ respect (to say the very least) of Malick as a filmmaker is evident in every frame of this film. This isn’t simply an exercise in Malick’s style, but also a specific exploration of Malick’s themes, from the anti-history lesson approach to some of North America’s most repeated narratives in The New World to Days of Heaven’s patient depiction of 19th century agrarian life to The Tree of Life’s juxtaposition of hardened fathers, budding young men and women that function more as angelic symbols than concrete characters.

As Malick is a notably un-prolific filmmaker, having an assured protégé take the baton of his decidedly unconventional style is not a bad thing, especially a protégé who invokes Malick so convincingly and authoritatively. But the problem with The Better Angels’ relationship to Malick is echoed in its depiction of Lincoln: in neither respect does the film want to risk taking us too far from the conventions that define the sources of influence and inspiration that have shaped it. The Better Angels is a beautiful film, but only technically speaking, as it is also burdened by an aversion to risk assumed in taking its audience into territory any less familiar than what this film offers on its illustrious surface, in terms of either the structure of the biopic or a filmmaker’s relationship to their muse.

I look forward to seeing what Edwards does next, primarily because I hope it will tell us a bit more about Edwards himself.

The Upside: Impeccably shot and executed Malick-inspired take on Lincoln’s life that mostly avoids the conventional trappings of biopics about major historical figures

The Downside: Its source of inspiration looms too large over the production without Edwards asserting an autonomous personality all its own; ultimately reveals itself to be a more conventional take on its historical subject

On the Side: The title is taken from an oft-quoted excerpt of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”