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THE BETTER ANGELS (review)

better_angelsTHE BETTER ANGELS
Written and Directed by A.J. Edwards

Starring Jason Clarke, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley and Diane Kruger

Protégé to the prolific and famously reclusive director, Terrence Malick (THE TREE OF LIFE), A.J. Edwards has gone from intern to editor with Malick on such films as THE NEW WORLD and more recently TO THE WONDER. He has now graduated to full fledged director and the apple certainly hasn’t fallen too far from the tree, at least stylistically anyway. THE BETTER ANGELS is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in Indiana and most certainly looks and feels like it owes a great deal to Malick and his signature directorial style. However, something went amiss with Edwards’ direction and THE BETTER ANGELS, despite it’s effort and beauty, falls short of actually being comparably captivating.

Set in early-mid 1800’s Indiana, the Lincoln Family lives in the mostly uninhabited forest with early settlers who spend their days farming and hunting. Abe’s father (Jason Clarke) is a harsh, stern man whose goal is to teach young Abe and his cousin about living in the bush and survival. In contrast, Abe’s mother (Brit Marling) is painted as an angel, a sweet women whom Abe had nothing but fondness of recollection (this is echoed in the title of the film, and an opening quote from Abraham Lincoln which calls his mother an angel). When tragedy strikes and Abe’s father remarries, a young Abe (Braydon Denney) must come to terms with new family members in his life. We witness his first exposure to slavery, his education in religion and ultimately see a glimpse into the early life of the man who would eventually become a US president.

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When it comes to story, THE BETTER ANGELS lags behind its visual style. Much like a Malick film, the camera is in constant movement, swooping low across the ground, finding its way close to the actors faces and taking lingering looks at the landscape. Shot in beautiful black and white, images of trees, babbling brooks and empty log houses are looked captured by the eyes of someone who has clearly worked with Malick and understands his love of nature and the roles we as humans play in it. While there is a sweet nostalgia of youth and exploration, a sentimentality to a time long forgotten throughout the film, the story itself seems to be in the background of this film, wanting us to focus more on the camera work instead of its sparse dialogue and intermittent voiceover narration.

More than anything, THE BETTER ANGELS is a labour of love dedicated to the man that Edwards has spent numerous years working with. Its replication of Malick’s storytelling style, while undoubtedly earnest, does what many an homage does and opens itself to criticism by simply mimicking Malick’s work and as if to say, “Hey! I can do this too”. If THE BETTER ANGELS were music, Edwards would be the cover-band and the film a sub-par cover version of Malick’s genius.

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