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Review: The Better Angels

November 14, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Better Angels Poster

Produced by Terrence Malick, and directed by his collaborator A.J. Edwards, The Better Angels takes a unique approach to the usual biopic formula, focusing on the rural Indiana childhood of Abraham Lincoln (Braydon Denney), years before he became the Sixteenth President.

This couldn’t be farther from the expansive portrait of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, or the loony counter history of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  But this is a film about the little moments as a boy that helped him become a great man, and in turn the seemingly small moments in all of our lives that ultimately become the very things that shape us.

This is not to say that The Better Angels achieves the same affect as the films that Terrence Malick has directed.  But the master’s protégé, so to speak, has none the less crafted a visually beautiful historical drama that is often lovely in its quiet simplicity.  The film opens exclusively at Carlton Cinemas this weekend.

Narrated by his cousin, The Better Angels shows Abraham Lincoln as a quiet and intelligent young child, with an adoring mother (Brit Marling) and tough father (Jason Clarke).  They take care of their cows and tend to the fields, their existence not much different from that of other poor farmers in the 1800s.  When his mother dies, his father promptly remarries, and stepmother Sarah (Diane Kruger) becomes another defining figure in Abraham’s life.

The screenplay almost defiantly avoids the usual biopic trappings, and to my knowledge, the name Abraham Lincoln is never even said out loud in the film.  When his teacher (Wes Bentley) takes a roll call of students at school, the screenplay skips right over surnames beginning with the letter L.  A brief moment when young Abe ventures out on his own and glimpses a group of enslaved men being led along on a chain, is barely dwelled upon within the film, but becomes a powerful image for the audience, knowing what this boy will grow up to accomplish.

Although The Better Angels doesn’t reach the profound heights of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and has a much smaller focus than that definitive 2011 masterpiece with which the story shares some thematic elements, his fingerprints are felt throughout the film.  From the camerawork that feels both fluid and tightly controlled, to the prominent focus on images of nature throughout the story, A.J. Edwards directs with clear admiration for his signature style, and this could have easily been a minor entry into Terrence Malick’s own filmography.

The actors do a wonderful job of simply existing within these painterly frames, gracefully moving about the onscreen landscapes.  With the crisp black and white images floating across the screen like classic paintings, this is a tranquil and beautifully filmed slice of art house cinema that is often lovely to watch, showing us Abraham Lincoln’s life from a decidedly different perspective.

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