Title: The Better Angels
Director: A.J. Edwards
Starring: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley
Abraham Lincoln was a majestic political and historical figure. It stands to reason, then, that he would also make for an excellent cinematic figure. Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film about the passage of the 13th Amendment won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for his portrayal of the famous president. Filling in another chapter of Lincoln’s life, especially one as formative as his childhood, should make for a great film. Unfortunately, this attempt is not at all successful, mainly because Abraham is barely a player in this Lincoln story.
The Better Angels is actually narrated by Abraham’s cousin, who talks about growing up with Abraham in a log cabin. Abraham’s father Tom (Jason Clarke) is a stern man who rarely shows Abraham any affection, instead inflicting physical and emotional punishment when his son does not do as he is told. Abraham is nearly completely silent, and his cousin does most of the talking. After Tom’s first wife, Nancy (Brit Marling), passes away, Tom brings home a new wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger), who is trumpeted at the start of the film as the most important influence in young Abraham’s life, an advocate for him and for his future, especially to his father.
The Better Angels is shot in black and white, so that it can emboss its events and give them a special historical stamp. That has the adverse effect in terms of making it interesting, however, since all that happens seems muted and distant. Much of Abraham’s days are spent outside doing work and seeing his father, and their content is far from compelling. Abraham himself barely speaks, and he’s such a minor character in his own story for most of the film that it becomes hard to tell why this film was made in the first place.
The Better Angels comes highly recommended because of Oscar-nominated director Terrence Malick’s producing credit, and the fact that this film’s director, A.J. Edwards, has been a frequent collaborator with Malick, serving as editor for all of his films from the past decade. This certainly feels like a Malick production in some respects, in no rush to tell its story and keen on dwelling on the small moments to make them feel important. The grandeur of a film like The Tree of Life is not present here, and the zoomed-in, seemingly majestic cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd is more of a distraction than anything.
The performances in The Better Angels are far from memorable, but the fault falls more to the script than anywhere else. Clarke’s Tom is a one-note old-time dad, who stresses hard work and persistence above humanity and kindness. Kruger is the sweet-natured adoptive mother who swoops in to save the day, and there isn’t much required of her. In a small role, Wes Bentley shines as a teacher who takes to Abraham and recognizes him for the potential he has. Unfortunately, the film isn’t interested in delving into Abraham’s future, and the focus on his past is unendingly dull.
This Sundance Film Festival New Frontier Film entry has held several public screenings in Park City thus far, with more scheduled.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer