Luminously shot in black and white, the biographical drama, The Better Angels chronicles the very early years of young Abraham Lincoln. Writer/director A. J. Edwards’ film is set in Indiana, 1817. Young Abe (Braydon Denney) is seen playing in the fields, filmed in silhouette against a gray sky. His father Tom (Jason Clarke) teaches him hoeing and sowing, and wrestling, as well as giving him lessons and advice. One kernel of wisdom Abe receives is not to be like corn—all closed up.
The camera swirls around the fields, and through the forest. There are scenes of a maypole dance, and a visit to a river where Abe and his cousins go swimming. There are many shots of the sky. Edwards is a collaborator of Terrence Malick’s and The Better Angels is co-produced by Malick. As such, it is an episodic film, focused more on mood than plotting. Scenes depict Abe helping to make a coffin, or learning how to whistle. He attends school, and plays hide and seek in the field with his cousin (Cameron Mitchell Williams).
There is an authenticity to all this activity and it is beautifully filmed. But the impressionistic storytelling grows wearisome after a while. Edwards is able to hold interest through the images, but the lack of action fails to provide much of a sense of Lincoln outside of a few telling moments. When Abe’s father lets him keep some coins he found, his fiduciary principles are established. Likewise, his emphasis on books, intellect, and spirit illustrate his intelligence. This mosaic-style portrait may be Edward’s intent, but it fails to engage in every scene. A subplot in which Tom finds a new wife after Abe’s mother Nancy (Brit Marling) dies from milk poisoning sparks interest, as does the relationship Abe has with his stepmother Sarah (Diane Kruger). But some of the scenes that feature Abe in the snowy plains have a chill to them.
As the young hero, Braydon Denney does well, giving a very unmannered performance. In support, Jason Clarke has a striking screen presence as Abe’s father, as does Wes Bentley, who turns up late in the film, as Abe’s teacher.
Much of The Better Angels consists of Abe playing and working and reading. It’s gorgeous to watch, but rarely illuminating. And as a result, oddly unsatisfying.
The Better Angels opens in Philly area theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.