The Better Angels screens exclusively at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. For screen times and more information, check here.
Besides Quentin Tarantino, there are few contemporary filmmakers who have inspired more mimicry than Terrence Malick. It is undoubtedly reflected by the director’s unique sensibility, a style of such astute visual poetry. Yet while filmmakers like David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow) and David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) acknowledge Malick’s presence through their work, their films are still personal feats. These are directors who admire the auteur but remain steadfast in charting their own path; they have their own stories to tell. It would be a misleading to suggest that A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels is indebted to Terrence Malick. No, that would not come close to addressing Edwards’ tunnel-visioned approach, as The Better Angels is a film that lacks any sense of directorial singularity. This is a film that worships at the altar of Malick, but fails to utilize his aesthetic in a meaningful way.
The Better Angels reflects on the youth of Abraham Lincoln (portrayed by debuting Braydon Denney). Like Malick’s latter works, Edwards is not especially concerned with narrative. Rather, with his gliding camera sprawled along the Indiana plains, Edwards captures the harsh yet sensual living of the Lincoln family. Familiar faces, such as Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke and Sound of my Voice’s Brit Marling, outline a cast that’s really just that: outlines. They function as figures in a largely atmospheric work. Rather, it’s Denney’s mumbling voiceover that conveys any sense narrative progression or even passages of time. There are certain touchstones that the picture relies on – paternal drama and maternal death – but Edwards is in large part driven by the spiritual aura of early 1800 Indiana.
The most obvious departure between The Better Angels and Malick is in Edwards’ use of black and white photography. It produces the interesting hypothetical of envisioning a Malick film in black and white, but also sheds light on why we have yet to see the director work this way. Many of Malick’s most potent images – the locust of Days of Heaven, the arrival of Pilgrims in The New World, the Mont Saint-Michel sequence in To the Wonder – rely on color photography to echo the picture tonal intent. In other words: color is significant and imagining the previously mentioned sequences in black and white borders on sacrilege. Edwards’ use of black and white is efficient, but given that he adopts Malick’s free-form poetry style of camera movement, the absent color dynamic ultimately proves a hindrance. It drains the film of a necessary vitality. Color is a critical tool of exuberance in Malick’s work and it’s omission in The Better Angels produces an ultimately dull exercise.