The comparisons between A.J. Edwards’ “The Better Angels” and the work of its producer, Terrence Malick, are inevitable. This mesmerizing period piece, which nobly seeks to grasp the spiritual dimension of young Abraham Lincoln’s formative early years, splits its attention between heaven and earth, brushing its fingertips over tall Indiana grasses one moment, then swirling its gaze upward to consider sunlight streaming through thick forest canopies the next — just as Malick himself would have done. More telling, however, is the way it stands in stark contrast with not only traditional Lincoln biopics, but just about everything else being made today.
Shot in silvery monochrome by Matthew J. Lloyd, whose visual style is closely modeled on the look Emmanuel Lubezki brought to Malick’s past three features (waist-level, wide-angle Steadicam views of innocents at play in the natural world), “The Better Angels” forgoes a traditional biographical approach in favor of a more freeform immersion into 10-year-old Abe’s world. He’s played by newcomer Braydon Denney, who gives a wonderfully unmannered performance, perfectly oblivious to the camera’s constant proximity: The actor is allowed to behave naturally in character, not like Lincoln or even a great man in the making, but simply as a child, interacting with the environment and the other performers around him.
Apart from the pic’s opening images — looming, abstract views of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. — and a title lifted from his first inaugural address, one might not even realize this kid would grow up to be the country’s 16th president. The pic is defiantly unlike Lincoln portraits offered by the likes of John Ford and Steven Spielberg in that way. Though Malick developed the film with the intention of directing it himself, the project ultimately fell to Edwards, a collaborator and co-editor of Malick’s since “The New World” whose own style is virtually indistinguishable.
Whereas other artists have presented the man in mythic terms, “The Better Angels” renders young Abe relatable, provided auds are willing to put themselves on its wavelength. Instead of scenes, the movie is composed of memory fragments, stitched together with jump cuts, yet powerfully evocative of such details as light, temperature and texture that impress themselves on us as children, casting sensory fossils we use to conjure a specific place and time many years later. Through this approach, Lincoln’s memories become our own.
While full of wonder and awe, the footage takes on a hauntingly elegiac tone, echoed through Hanan Townshend’s sparse, hymn-like score, as we come to recognize the tragedy and hardship that shaped Abe’s childhood: There are tender moments in which his gentle mother, Nancy (Brit Marling at her most brittle), shares her ideas of faith, followed by feelings of confusion and terror as something in the water starts to poison the cows, whose tainted milk infects the people in turn.
Nancy’s passing seems to make Abe’s father (Jason Clarke) even sterner. Tom Lincoln is a strict disciplinarian, distrustful of his son’s interest in books and determined to harden the boy by teaching him how to plant corn, chop wood and wrestle. At one point, he sets off for Kentucky and returns with a new wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger) — a widow who, like Nancy, seems too delicate for the dirt floors and hard labor their lifestyle entails.
Abe’s family doesn’t know what to make of the boy. He craves enlightenment, which vexes them. Neither of his parents, nor his new stepmother, can account for his intellectual curiosity, which is later encouraged by a local teacher played by Wes Bentley (an actor who has always looked more at home in period pics than contemporary ones). Before being sent off to school, young Abe does his chores, but seems distracted by natural world around him, drifting on the periphery of things, examining plants and animals, and talking to himself — a loner among coarse, uneducated country folk.
“He thinks he’s better than us,” a stepbrother remarks. Abe’s older cousin, Dennis (Cameron Williams), is more appreciative. He comes to live with the Lincolns after his own parents pass away early in the film, playing witness to the lad’s early years, then supplying narration from a distance decades farther on, informed by Lincoln’s accomplishments, and colored by his assassination.
As in Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” this voiceover supplies a kind of simple, unsophisticated poetry to the proceedings, delivered here in a backwoods Kentucky drawl. We can’t necessarily make out all the words, much less untangle the knotty vernacular, but it contributes to the pic’s down-to-earth texture, placing otherwise hypnotic events at a specific time and place.
Though the touchy-feely vibe may frustrate some viewers, it isn’t essential that we understand every moment of the film — an approach that serves to carry us back to childhood, when we were constantly overwhelmed by our surroundings and grasping to make sense of the world. The idea is to let the film wash over you, to embrace this unique opportunity to vicariously identify with an exceptional man at a stage before greatness set in, yet signs of certain special qualities were already evident.
Apart from the heavy debt it owes to Malick’s oeuvre, Edwards’ entrancing debut is radically non-generic, either as history film and coming-of-age piece. But wouldn’t it be great if this experiment were to inspire imitators — not necessarily Malick copycats, of which indie cinema already has too many, but those interested in re-creating the feel of world history? Books are a perfectly adequate medium for dates and facts, while cinema is uniquely suited to capture mood, and similarly intriguing art films could — and arguably should — be made about the early years of Jesus or Gandhi or Hitler, though the commercial viability for such projects remains slim.