A. J. Edwards, a student and artistic son of Terrence Malick, opens his debut film with cold, haunting shots of the Lincoln Memorial. A crackling Malickian voice-over of a backwoods fella talkin’ bout being Lincoln’s cousin and having lived with him for a spell when he was just a boy in Indiana begins to shape the story as the image moves to a rambling creak. Water is transporting us back in time, back into a dream, and we’re suddenly there watching young Abe make his way in the world. The film ends just a brief 90 minutes later with a chilling bookend…a nicely appointed cabin in Illinois (a clear step-up from the backwoods cabins of his father) where that same warbling cousin waxes about the moment Lincoln’s beloved stepmother (Diane Kruger) learns of his passing. It’s the grand beautiful stuff of myth.
Watching The Better Angels and comparing it to the work of Malick is akin to comparing painters from the same family. One can’t help but think of the generations of Wyeths or Renoirs. Edwards does something Malick never did – he films in black and white – but the movements and framing and pacing and focus are eerily the same. A low shot panning up to an open gate…or door…or window. The actors and actresses moving about as if in interpretative dance. Beautiful music. Ethereal cinematography of nature. There’s one shot of Lincoln’s mother (Brit Marling) on her death-bed where Edwards actually photographs her last breath…you see it hang in the air after her exhale, and its captured in a perfect light. Dust and smoke and light…the black and white photography does wonders for all that Edwards and Malick love to capture.
The film isn’t without its distractions. The boy playing young Lincoln (Braydon Denney) looks more like a little Elvis than a little Lincoln, or in one scene where he is crying alone in the winter woods all bundled up he looks like he could’ve been one of the kids from Game of Thrones. The screenplay seems to tiptoe around the obvious – never wanting to seem too prophetic about this boy’s fate, but at the same time there are moments that make you almost want to giggle. Are they gonna say it? Is he gonna call him Honest Abe? You can’t help but think it as a teacher tells Abe’s stepmother how bravely honest he is. Abe’s father (Jason Clarke) tells him after a day of hard work, “You’re gonna be twice the man I’ll ever be.” There’s another moment where Abe fights a boy who was torturing a turtle. Behold as our hero watches inquisitively as a slave chain-gang passes through the woods. The film ultimately can’t be held responsible for feeding into our own preconceived notions about who he was, the mythos swirling around his humanity.
But the film is also in meta-fashion about the legacy Malick will leave behind as an artist. Will he be passing the torch to Edwards when he inevitably passes? I for one wouldn’t mind another 40 years of Malick films…directed by A. J. Edwards. The Better Angels is hopefully only the first in a long line of painterly films to ponder.
Written by David H. Schleicher