By Don Simpson | November 7, 2014
Director: A.J. Edwards
Writer: A.J. Edwards
Starring: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Braydon Denney, Cameron Mitchell Williams, McKenzie Blankenship
Whether it is unabashed idol worship, plagiaristic mimicry or two directors who happen to be cut from the same cerebral cloth, there is absolutely no denying the countless permutations of Terrence Malick’s influences permeating every single frame of A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels. Undeniably referential and reverential of Malick — especially his last three films (The New World, The Tree Of Life, To The Wonder) — Edwards’ impressionistic visual poem captures Abraham Lincoln (Braydon Denney) at around ten years old, as he grows up in rural Illinois. Lincoln’s humble upbringing is captured with a moving slideshow of one idyllic image after the next; even young children toiling the land are made to look absolutely glamorous. Photographed by Matthew J. Lloyd with sharp depth of focus and perpetual magic hour lighting, the ever-bedazzling sunlight dances across the images, sublimely showcasing the magical qualities of living a simple existence. The camera impatiently drifts around the densely forested locations like a disenfranchised spirit, often sticking close to the ground, shooting upwards, making everything seem all the more profound and majestic.
Sparsely utilizing dialogue, Edwards opts to rely mainly upon voiceovers in order to pair words with the images. This allows the film to function as a collection of thoughts and impressions, rather than a retelling of history. And judging by the overtly stylishly contrived artifice — especially the clean and beautiful faces of the actors — Edwards had no intention of capturing the Truth; rather, The Better Angels is told through the veil of a reenactment. The actors are quite obviously that — actors; just as the presence of the camera is readily apparent, thanks to its constant movement. With Lincoln as its focus, it seems as though The Better Angels is most likely a comment on how history often places “great men” up on pedestals, presenting them via the filter of nostalgia as flawless human beings. In this light, Edwards’ aloof avoidance of ever outrightly mentioning Lincoln’s name seems all the more telling. We all know that this film is about — albeit quite obliquely — Lincoln, yet we are never actually told that. So, is that an educated guess or a false assumption on our part? In the end, what is the consumer’s role in the “great man” theory? Are we partially to blame for making assumptions in our naive understanding of history?
Edwards’ contemplatively elliptical approach to filmmaking avoids any semblance of a narrative, forming an almost laughable caricature of proudly pretentious European art house films. (It is even presented in black and white!) Obviously not aiming for box office gold, The Better Angels targets the extremely niche audience of Malick, and will probably end up appealing to only a small portion of that group. Needless to say, if you do want to see The Better Angels, make sure you watch it in a theater.