Are you an admirer of Terrence Malick? If so, you’ll definitely want to make time for The Better Angels, a black-and-white tone poem reflecting the best and worst of the director’s style opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 21. If, on the other hand, you don’t have much time for his frequently meandering efforts, you can probably give it a miss.
Written and directed by A.J. Edwards (who got his start working with Malick on both The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), The Better Angels was produced by Malick. It takes place in the woods of Indiana circa 1817, where a young boy is being raised in treacherous frontier conditions.
Spoiler alert: the young boy is Abraham Lincoln, though the film doesn’t name him until the final credit crawl. A brilliant young lad (Braydon Denney) who’s the apple of mother Nancy’s (the excellent Brit Marling) eye (she proclaims early on that her son “has a gift…he asks questions I can’t answer”), Abe doesn’t always get along quite as well with rough-edged farmer dad Tom (Aussie expat Jason Clarke).
Things get even trickier in the merciless Indiana wilderness when Nancy succumbs to milk sickness, a poisoning contracted by drinking milk contaminated by the herb Ageratina altissima (white snakeroot). Fear not, though: our young hero gets his schoolin’ in a postcard perfect log cabin (his teacher is portrayed by Wes Bentley, the biggest star on hand), and by film’s end is clearly destined for greater things.
Narrated laconically by Abe’s cousin Dennis (Cameron Mitchell Williams), The Better Angels is extremely light on narrative, relying heavily on typical Malickian tricks and tropes to tell its story. Edwards has learned well from the master: there are endless shots of swaying treetops, windswept grass, and simple folk dancing and communing with nature. The director does himself no favors by relying on a hyperactive camera, while editor Alex Milan (yet another Malick veteran) overdoes things with endless and distracting quick cuts and jump cuts.
To its credit, there are more than a few moments of deep and enduring beauty scattered throughout The Better Angels, but little else to hold the viewer’s attention. Coy to the point of absurdity about its subject matter, the film is neither educational nor entertaining. It’s a bit like an Eric Rohmer film, minus the subtly cheeky humor, which has been replaced by Williams’ affectless narration.
Malick is surely blessed with an impressive photographer’s eye, but he’s never been much of a moviemaker (even his 1973 debut Badlands is considerably overrated). Edwards here reflects every unfortunate aspect of his master’s cinematic voice. For those keen on mumbled dialogue, scudding clouds and those ever-present treetops, you’ll love The Better Angels. Me, I’m going to stick to John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) for my civics lesson regarding the early life of America’s 16th President.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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