The Better Angels
At an isolated log cabin in the harsh wilderness of Indiana circa 1817, the rhythms of love, tragedy, and the daily hardships of life on the developing frontier shaped one of our nation’s greatest heroes: Abraham Lincoln. Abe is a thoughtful and quiet boy who spends his days at the side of his beloved mother while learning to work the land from his stern father. When illness takes his mother, Abe's new guardian angel comes in the form of his new stepmother, who sees the potential in the boy and pushes for his further education.
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★★★★½ review by Eli Hayes on Letterboxd
To me, this film is, on a technical level, so directly inspired by the Tree of Life/post-hiatus Malick (and is aware of how influenced it is) that is doesn't try to be anything but a spiritual sequel to the Tree of Life... or in a way, almost an addition to Malick's filmography. I imagine aside from producing it, Malick also worked with the cinematographer to achieve that sort of fluid Lubezki-esque style, and he's not credited as a writer but I wouldn't be surprised if he assisted with some of the voiceover & dialogue. When I saw the trailer, I knew that it was going to be very "Malicky" but I didn't know that it would be almost indistinguishable from his films (IMO).
The good news is that Malick is, next to Tarkovsky, my favorite director of all-time, so of course I found this film to be derivative in the best way possible - if that makes any sense - and it was actually a real treat for me. Oh yeah, and B+W was a wonderful choice! It really highlighted the gorgeous fog-shrouded landscape; in a way, the cinematography was almost reminiscent of A Field in England's as well (which a very good thing). Really extraordinary stuff. So yeah, basically I don't really have much to add to the general consensus about this film.
Most of the reviews mention Malick because its so very apparent, and it's kind of a new thing for another filmmaker to attempt to replicate another filmmaker's style almost to a tee. The good news: it appears as if we may still be getting Malick-style releases after Malick passes away. Potential (thematic, not aesthetic) musical accompaniment: I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love by Sun Kil Moon (Benji, 2014).
★★★★½ review by Andre de Nervaux on Letterboxd
★★★★ review by FilmApe on Letterboxd
Director A.J. Edwards only other credits on IMDB are miscellaneous jobs on every Terence Malick film since and including The New World. The Malick influence is clearly apparent, and I doubt there is single review of this film that doesn't bring that up. I found it to be a powerful film, and an interesting exercise of a student emulating their teacher. The Better Angels isn't merely a Malick tribute though, with the black and white look being the depature, and it is used in an interesting and haunting way. I think the closest comparison in terms of style would be The White Ribbon, but I think that this flick goes even further with the look. There are scenes shrouded in fog that are stunning, and I think overall the black and white coupled with the forest setting, gives the film a really interesting visual vibe. I definitely think I need to rewatch it again, but I was impressed with it on a first time watch.
★★★½ review by Bobby Analog on Letterboxd
The Better Angels offers no levity, no flecks of light or booming laughter. No school taught anecdotes or conventional wisdom. The Better Angels, instead, leaves you with sharp monochrome images of buzzing insects and weathered faces. Arboreal light and rough, wooden chairs. The synopsis will tell you that this film is chiefly about Abraham Lincoln. About his life as a boy, living with his family in near poverty and malaise. Yet, the narrative is more about emotion than important historical footnotes.
There is nothing emblematic of a big-time biopic. You will not find rousing, clever dialogue or flashy effects. The Better Angels rests its weary shoulders on the old bones of forgotten history. We see shadows being cut in half by the dawn. Tall grass emblazoned by dirty hands and running feet. Director A.J. Edwards channels the spiritual nature of Terrence Malick and the muted meditation of Kelly Reichardt. Music swells and dips, rolls and foams. The Better Angels makes you think about the curiosity of our past, the gossamer fog of our forefathers. Omissions, when it comes down to the narrative, are just as important as the text. Bereft of color, Edwards chooses to siphon his world of green tufts of grass or blue skies. What is left is ash and marble.
Edwards culls a lot from the viewer’s subconscious, and there is something to be said for that. The Better Angels may be one of the finest American movies of 2014, if only for its contempt of pomp and its embrace of thought. What is history? And what do the forgotten parts mean?
★★★★ review by EnteredTheVoid on Letterboxd
As a fan of Terry Malick, I'm always looking for films that are Malickian in theme and in visuals and it was no surprise that Edwards would hit the nail on the head. Giving that he was an editorial intern on The New World and editor on To The Wonder and Terry's latest films, it was evident Malicks style would rub off on his protégé.
Can't wait to see more from this guy.
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