Before even arriving in local cinemas, A.J. Edwards’ austere historical drama The Better Angels has been shrouded by the shadow of its producer, Terrence Malick. Not a single review, blurb, or log line for the film goes by that doesn’t mention the famed reclusive auteur’s involvement, quick to state that Edwards’ is a “protégée” of the master filmmaker, having worked as an editor on each of Malick’s films since The New World.
This review isn’t going to break that cycle, nor the general shrugs that have greeted Edwards’ directorial debut. It’s so heavily indebted to Malick that it comes across as an earnestly well meaning first year university project written by someone with an MA in philosophy that cares very little about the film’s very real, and heavily documented historical subject. Such a high concept could fly only if the filmmaker wasn’t so entranced on aping his mentor’s style note for note. Sure, it’s an admirable style to ape, and one that Malick doesn’t always fully nail, but that studious attention to austerity only serves to make the film not much more than poetic background noise.
Edwards sets out to tell a revisionist version of the history of future American president Abe Lincoln’s life as a child in the backwoods of Indiana. Told from the view of an adopted orphan cousin that narrates, Edwards follows Abe (newcomer Braydon Denney) as he lives a hardscrabble, rural life with his stoic hardass father (Jason Clarke). We watch Abe come to terms with his dad’s sometimes all too quick temper, the tragic death of his mother (Brit Marling), and the arrival of a new stepmother (Diane Kruger).
Aside from the late film arrival of a teacher (Wes Bentley) who believes Abe is positioned for greatness and sequences that attempt to debunk the mythology behind Lincoln’s youth, Edwards concerns himself very little with Lincoln’s history, and that’s fine. The details are there, but they’re being reinterpreted to fit Edwards’ unconventional narrative style. The whole things almost like an exact remake of the father and son dynamic in Malick’s revered Tree of Life, only transported to 1817 Indiana and minus any talk of a greater universe outside these woods.
As a screenplay, Edwards work feels more like a writing exercise than a fully realized vision. It’s so beholden to Malick’s previous work that it’s hard to separate the student from the teacher, almost impossibly so. Edwards has simply taken a pre-existing mythology and decided he wants to make a poetic visual essay. In short, it takes a story people have heard before and grafts it onto a style of speaking that really only one filmmaker has ever been able to attempt with any degree of success.
It’s not that it’s presumptuous that the same agrarian lifestyle that Lincoln grew up around was what ultimately turned him into a great man. It’s that Edwards can’t really be bothered to care about the humans in the story, with the possible exception of the almost tangential narrator and Clarke’s admittedly magnetic and stern pappy. Edwards doesn’t care about context, nuance, and character when there are plenty of great ways to shoot icicles hanging from trees or steam coming off piping hot food at the dinner table. There’s no need to actually inform the lives of these characters because it’s about creating poems for them to deliver in slightly off kilter metre.
The decision to shoot in black and white also manages to work against Edwards. Instead of making the film sufficiently dated, it actually makes the material feel cheaper and colder. There’s a slickness to this black and white that’s simultaneously devoid of warmth and that makes it clear that the audience is watching a film that never happened, not an immersive experience in the life of a historical figure. It looks like a bunch of people hanging out in the woods in period garb trying to slap together a project in only a couple of days.
When placed against an even more narratively opaque film made by Malick, it’s clear just how much a colour palate can bring to his films. Malick can capture landscapes and light in ways that no one ever could, creating revelatory imagery that even his detractors can admire. Meanwhile, it doesn’t matter that Edwards’ narrative here isn’t a standardized one because every setting, every incident, and every day feels the exact same. There’s no feeling of a passage of time or a change in location. It’s shot to look grand, but that’s very obviously not the case here.
The cast does what they can, particularly Clarke and Kruger who give the film what little vibrancy it has, but they can’t make the film around them much better. Edwards has clearly studied the works of his mentor with a ruthlessly clinical eye for detail, but he hasn’t figured out what makes them actual works of art. It’s like recreating the Mona Lisa with a dollar store watercolour kit and a really handsome looking brush.