Published Nov 13, 2014That The Better Angels was directed by Terrence Malick's protégé, A.J. Edwards, is not surprising based on its look, its tone and its themes. The sweeping, observant camerawork, following characters through their quotidian tasks, rushing up behind them and lingering on the seemingly anodyne while a soothing voice narrates concepts rather than exposition, is all reminiscent of Malick's auteur vision. Yet, despite these similarities, there's something about Edwards' directorial debut that distinguishes it from films like Tree of Life and To the Wonder.
Shot entirely in black and white, Angels tells the story of Abraham Lincoln's (Braydon Denney) childhood in remote Indiana. Shaped by moments rather than a clear narrative, it details his family life in the wilderness with his hard-working, tough-loving father Thomas (Jason Clarke) and loving mother Nancy (Brit Marling). Though Abe's upbringing is harsh, being held up to high expectations by his father, there's a formative duality between the maternal and paternal that gives us a sense of what pushes and what comforts him. While Thomas forces his son to accept responsibility and gain independence, Nancy satisfies his needs for affection, balancing the development of the 16th President of the United States.
Edwards' preoccupation here is the nature of maturation and how role models influence it. When tragedy strikes, shifting the family dynamic, the story adjusts accordingly, documenting the process of reacclimatization to substituted parental guidance. How family interacts and influences each other is paramount, which is very similar to the structure set up in Malick's most recent works, but here the acknowledgement of the ephemeral and relation to the earth is strangely absent. Instead, Edwards has a more muscular and concise approach to the style, eschewing the more abstract and emotional in favour of thematic focus.
As such, The Better Angels is a more accessible work than Malick's particular oeuvre. Its intentions are clear and the structure merely makes poetic a parable about nature versus nurture. But what's problematic is the lack of emotion and looseness. Without the escapist, larger than life sensibility, the free camerawork and voyeuristic intimacy feels somewhat stifled, limiting the overall power and heart of the film. It's still quite astute and touching overall, but the more traditional, masculine approach to Malick's style has an intriguingly cold and literal effect, ultimately representing more of a paternal vision, should one be inclined to relate the form and content of this very personal little film.