The Better Angels

I was only three years old when Alfred Hitchcock died but I recall my Dad saying, regretfully,  he’d never see a new film from the great director again. While I never got to see “Rear Window” or “Psycho” the first time they opened, I did grow up in an age where the term “Hitchcockian” grew as a moniker. It seemed any film that mimicked Mr. Hitchcock’s style and approach to maximizing suspense was deemed “Hitchcockian.” Some of those films were very good, and worthy of comparison to those of The Original Master of Suspense. While I wasn’t around to see Hitchcock’s movies first take hold of our imaginations, I did witness the increasing popularity of the films of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, whose films are imitated today for their style and themes with exact fidelity. Since cinematic output has always been about adding to the language of film, I don’t mind when I see mimicry of a particular director’s style, when it’s done well and serves a purpose.

I mention all this because of the obvious way “The Better Angels,” by writer/director A.J. Edwards, looks and feels so much like a Terrence Malick film. The opening minutes reminded me so much of Malick, I leaned forward, really looking at the screen and wondered, “wait, who directed this?” It’s hard to make a film look like Malick’s, and it’s even harder to do that sort of thing well. Edwards was the editor for Malick’s “To The Wonder,” which was my favorite film of 2013. You’d never confuse Malick’s films for anyone else’s. His quiet, hypnotic, leisurely paced works have been called cinematic poems and express mood and feeling first, though plot and character are also a priority. I love Malick’s films, which express an awe of life, a love for the earth and the beautiful, messy contradictions that make up the actions of the human race. Malick’s films are big, gorgeous and unlike anyone else’s. If Malick ghost-directed “The Better Angels” or, more likely, inspired his editor-turned-filmmaker to create a film that compliments Malick’s output, then fine. Whoever made “The Better Angels,” it’s a gorgeous, entrancing and powerfully moving film.

Newcomer Braydon Denny stars as Abe, a young boy who is never called by his name in the film but we know from the establishing title card is Abraham Lincoln. The film is an extension of a well-told and fascinating historical note on Lincoln: as a boy, he lived in a log cabin and would often read by candle light. “The Better Angels” recreates the atmosphere Lincoln grew up in, as an introverted but thoughtful, clearly intelligent child with a tough, single-minded father (an effectively cast Jason Clarke) and a tender-hearted mother (Brit Marling) who wants her son to excel in school. Lincoln’s father is an uneducated man with a disdain for both schooling and the favoritism his son receives.

At a key story turn, Lincoln’s mother dies and his father takes off into the wilderness, gone for weeks, while Lincoln and his siblings must fend for themselves. After some time, the father reappears, with a new wife (Diane Kruger). Our first thought when we see her inevitably must be, what does she see in this guy? Immediately, she sees in Lincoln what his biological mother saw, that there’s something different, sensitive and inquisitive about the boy. Her endearing love for him sends Lincoln’s father into a rage but she manages to get him in school, where his teacher (Wes Bentley) also recognizes the obvious potential.

Clarke conveys paternal intimidation with a forcefulness in line with his prior film roles. Denny is a star in the making and keeps us riveted, though Kruger’s touching work stayed with me the most. Everything here, the sets, score, costumes, dialog and especially the sound design create a setting where human contact and the forming of ideas created the greatest means of escapism.

Whether Edwards’ future directorial works resemble the style of his mentor or display a distinctly different cinematic voice, we’ll see. For now, Edwards borrowed the paintbrush of a master and shaped a masterpiece of his own.