A.J. Edwards is an acolyte of Terrence Malick, and I ended up getting my hands on this movie because of the Malick connection since he acts as producer on the film. I really didn’t expect that I’d be getting what is essentially another Malick film from it. The voiceover, the captured moments, repeated motifs, and the wide-angle lenses all feel like Malick made the film himself. The little that’s written about the film, since it was barely released and mostly forgotten, tends to call the movie a copy of Malick. Well, it kind of is, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile film on its own. Like many first time filmmakers before him, A.J. Edwards made a film in the style of the filmmaker that meant most to him, and having worked on all of Malick’s films from The New World to Song to Song in some capacity, most notably as a “key artistic consultant” on The Tree of Life, Edwards was well placed to receive guidance from the man who seems to have given him his start in the industry.
The Better Angels is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s youth in Indiana, mostly from the death of his mother Nancy through his father’s marriage of Sarah Bush. It’s in the relationships between Abraham and his father and step-mother that the movie is primarily focused on, and it ends up repeating the nature and grace motif most prominent in The Tree of Life. Tom Lincoln is a hard man, building up a living from the earth with his bare hands. Sarah, played by the blonde Diane Kruger, is uncomfortable with Tom’s use of corporal punishment and encourages Abraham’s education.
Up until Sarah’s introduction, the movie does end up feeling like a stylistic imitation rather than a work of art on its own, but it’s with the appearance of Abraham’s step-mother that the film gains something special. The movie has several wonderful episodes, but the first, at about the halfway mark, is when Abraham takes a trinket of Sarah’s, “meaning nothing by it” as the voiceover from Abraham’s cousin explains. Abraham admits the petty theft to his father in Sarah’s presence, and Tom immediately takes his switch and starts to punish Abraham, an act that Sarah can’t bear to witness. She ends it and even hands the trinket back to Abraham. Diane Kruger feels right at home as Sarah, offering the sort of unconditional love that one might expect from a manifestation of grace.
The movie ends up trying to strike a balance between explaining Lincoln as a man through his childhood and saying something a bit more universal. I think both end up a bit muted in impact with Abraham’s emphasis on his honesty shown but never really given any depth, and in terms of the universal aspects it feels equally thin. We have the same basic dichotomy between mother and father as in The Tree of Life, but we’re given far less time with both, especially Sarah as the mother/grace figure, so they don’t create the same kind of lasting impression. I’m also unclear about how these different aspects are supposed to really tie together, touching on an irritation I have about explaining complex historical figures through easy answers. However, this doesn’t try to provide an easy answer (a mark in its favor), but Abraham ends up feeling less like a character than an idol, even in child form. The emphasis largely seems to be on Sarah and for all the joy Diane Kruger brings to the screen, she does only appear in the second half of the film, limiting her impact.
The film’s about mood, tone, and emotion, much like Malick’s work which makes sense. I just feel like there’s a bit less behind it here. Edwards has the aesthetic down pat, but not the meaning. As an art film package, it’s a good watch that holds together well but ends up feeling a bit thin in the end. For fans of Malick’s work, this is a nice homage to the master’s films. I want to see Edwards make more films, though I also hope that he can either make the style his own or move beyond homage completely to find his own distinctive voice. As a first film, though, there have been far worse from great directors.