The term “Malickian” is thrown around a lot to describe filmmakers who seem to be aping the elegant, naturalist style of Terrence Malick, but few of these directors actually can say they’ve worked with the man. The same can’t be said of Malick protégé A.J. Edwards, who has worked on The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, The New World, and more. And it’s clear that he admires his mentor, enough that his quiet, slow-moving Abraham Lincoln coming-of-age story The Better Angels seems to be less about our President’s childhood, and more about paying homage to Malick.
We’ve seen a few Lincoln movies lately, each taking vastly different approaches to humanizing the man. Spielberg’s massive ensemble film depicted Lincoln in the political fight of his life, while “Honest” Abe was satirized in the historical horror comedy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The Better Angels is an attempt to humanize him further by offering a sober portrayal of his tough upbringing in the Indiana backwoods. Set in 1817, a young Lincoln (Braydon Denney, newcomer) basks in the glow of his adoring mother (Brit Marling) while enduring his harsh, abusive father (Jason Clarke). If that sounds like the synopsis for Malick’s The Tree of Life, well you’re right, and clearly Edwards was influenced by the film in more ways than one. There’s little story to speak of here as Edwards puts the emphasis on sweeping, ethereal atmospherics. Edwards has a similar awe of nature’s majesty and focus on these things: water trickling down a river, dust floating gracefully in the sunlight, wind-swept forests. If Malick wasn’t on board as a producer The Better Angels would almost come to resemble a parody of the man’s directorial tropes. Well, it still kind of is but unintentionally so.
There’s a reason why so many emulate Malick and it’s because the images he creates are truly memorable, and The Better Angels looks beautiful and vivid, even in soft black & white tones. Edwards wants you to get swept up in the surreal cinematography and it’s hard not to. It serves as a distraction from the lack of any narrative momentum. Lincoln barely utters a word throughout and is basically a satellite character in his own story, soaking up the influences of those around him. But it’s hard to get a sense of who Lincoln is when the structure is so fragile that we rarely see the repercussions of anything. When milk sickness takes his mother’s life, Lincoln barely registers a reaction before we’re ushered into the next scene. Instead we see his father becoming sterner, angrier, before finally going out and bringing home another wife (Diane Kruger) who becomes one of Lincoln’s strongest confidantes. Hushed voice-over, another Malick staple, informs us how to perceive Lincoln, suggesting the greatness growing within him, but the one we actually see is aloof and unsure.
Despite its obvious problems, The Better Angels is at least a gallant effort to tell a different kind of Lincoln story. It doesn’t attempt to idolize the man, but to chart the factors in his life that built him into one of our most accomplished Presidents. The effort is worthy even if the execution falls way short. Edwards is obviously a talented filmmaker to emulate Malick to such an indistinguishable degree, but The Better Angels would have been better served with a more original approach.