By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance 2014 Review: The Better Angels

The Better Angels

The Better Angels, produced (and clearly strongly influenced) by Terrence Malick and directed by A.J. Edwards in his feature debut, is a stunningly beautiful, vividly black-and-white cinematic painting about the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln on a farm in the remote Indiana frontier during the years 1817-1819. And for lovers of films that veer into the realm of art, it’s a deeply moving visual treat.

Presumably, these particular years in young Lincoln’s life were chosen as the focus of the film because of their profound influence in shaping the boy who would become our 16th president. In 1816 Lincoln’s father, Thomas, notably lost his sizable holdings of land in Kentucky due to property line disputes, forcing the family to relocate to Indiana to make a fresh start. It was during these years that two pivotal events occurred: Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, died of milk sickness in 1818, and his father remarried in 1819 to Sarah Bush Johnston, with whom the boy bonded. Both women strongly influenced the man Abe Lincoln would become.

Edwards moves us along languidly through this pivotal period in Lincoln’s life: The isolation of a frontier farm boy who loved books and learning, growing up in a time and place where physical labor was more valued than intellect. The death of his beloved mother and arrival of his stepmother, two women who understood intuitively that there was something different and special about the boy, and who profoundly shaped his life. The fabled wrestling match, at which he won the grudging respect of rough-and-tumble peers by showing that he had brawn as well as brains. We also see planted the seed of his opposition to slavery, which would come to be a crucial part of his political career.

There are certainly many ways the story of Lincoln as a boy could have been told, but Edwards, a longtime cameraman in Malick’s circle, chooses here the path akin to what one imagines Malick himself might have taken, had he directed the project himself, as he reportedly planned to early in its development. Told largely through voice over taken directly from an interview with Lincoln’s last surviving cousin, who lived with the future president during this time of his life, The Better Angels (not unlike Malick’s own films) lies far more in the realm of impressionistic imagery and poetry than narrative prose.

This is a film created to be seen on a big screen, where the gorgeous cinematography can fill your soul. Dialog is sparse, used only to augment the narration and visuals, with the result that it feels almost like watching a silent film with narration over it. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, it’s like immersing yourself into a black-and-white landscape of stunning beauty, where there happens to be this story happening around you. I certainly couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Edwards’ time spent as a cameraman on Malick’s films is evident here in the framing of shots, the extensive use of nature in storytelling, and his willingness to let his tale breathe in quiet spaces.

Lack of dialog doesn’t mean lack of need for solid performances – if anything it requires that much more of an actor to convey actions, emotions, moments of connection with each other, without being able to lean much on words to convey meaning. Fortunately for Edwards, his excellent cast is more than up to that task. Jason Clarke as Tom Lincoln, Brit Marling as Lincoln’s mother, Sarah, and Diane Kruger as his stepmother Nancy, are all spot on, evoking the juxtaposition of weariness and hope that embodied life on the frontier. But it’s young Braydon Denney, who plays Abe Lincoln in the tale, who most stood out for me, perfectly capturing the dreamy intellect that conveys the introspective mind of the boy who would grow to be one of our nation’s greatest leaders.

While the film’s high-art house structure and style might limit the film’s appeal to a mainstream audience, for those who revel the use of poetic imagery to tell a story, The Better Angels is a sumptuous feast of starkly contrasted painterly beauty. It is, quite simply, sublime.

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“I had this friend who was my roommate for a while. She seemed really normal in every way except that she wouldn’t buy shampoo. She would only use my shampoo. And after a year it’s like, “When are you going to buy your own shampoo?” It was her way of digging in her heels. It was a certain sense of entitlement, or a certain anger. It was so interesting to me why she wouldn’t buy her own fucking shampoo. It was like,“I’m gonna use yours.” It was coming from a place of “You have more money than me, I just know it”—whether I did or I didn’t. Or maybe she felt, “You have a better life than me,” or “You have a better room than me in the apartment.” It was hostile. And she was a really close friend! There was never any other shampoo and I knew she was washing her hair. And clearly I have a thing about shampoo, as we see in ‘Friends with Money.’ I had some nice shampoo. So I found that psychologically so interesting how a person can function normally in every way and yet have this aberrance—it’s like a skip in the record. It was a sense of entitlement, I think. I put that in Olivia’s character, too, with her stealing someone’s face cream.”
Nicole Holofcener

“When books become a thing, they can no longer be fine.

“Literary people get mad at Knausgård the same way they get mad at Jonathan Franzen, a writer who, if I’m being honest, might be fine. I’m rarely honest about Jonathan Franzen. He’s an extremely annoying manI have only read bits and pieces of his novels, and while I’ve stopped reading many novels even though they were pretty good or great, I have always stopped reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels because I thought they were aggressively boring and dumb and smug. But why do I think this? I didn’t read him when he was a new interesting writer who wrote a couple of weird books and then hit it big with ‘The Corrections,’ a moment in which I might have picked him up with curiosity and read with an open mind; I only noticed him once, after David Foster Wallace had died, he became the heir apparent for the Great American Novelist position, once he had had that thing with Oprah and started giving interviews in which he said all manner of dumb shit; I only noticed him well after I had been told he was An Important Writer.

“So I can’t and shouldn’t pretend that I am unmoved by the lazily-satisfied gentle arrogance he projects or when he is given license to project it by the has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy development of him being constantly crowned and re-crowned as Is He The Great American Writer. What I really object to is this, and if there’s anything to his writing beyond it, I can’t see it and can’t be bothered. Others read him and tell me he’s actually a good writer—people whose critical instincts I have learned to respect—so I feel sure that he’s probably a perfectly fine, that his books are fine, and that probably even his stupid goddamned bird essays are probably also fine.

“But it’s too late. He has become a thing; he can’t be fine.”
~ Aaron Bady