Opening today at Harkins Valley Art:
The Better Angels—Shot in ravishing black-and-white, this vision of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood in Indiana takes its title, of course, from Lincoln’s famous reference to “The Better Angels of Our Nature” in his first inaugural. Writer-director A. J. Edwards seems to be making the case that said Better Angels were Lincoln’s mother and stepmother. The film even begins with an onscreen quote from Abe: “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
The dreamlike, free-floating narrative depicts both this biological mother, Nancy Lincoln (Brit Marling), who died when he was nine, and his father’s new wife Sarah (Diane Kruger) as paragons who instilled in the frontier boy (Braydon Denney) not only civility but compassion. It’s less generous to Thomas Lincoln (Jason Clarke), Abe’s dour drudge of a dad—his appearances often heralded by the sharp crack of an ax as he splits wood. He’s acknowledged as a decent sort at bottom, but fairly or not it’s implied that Lincoln’s greatness arose in spite rather than because of him.
Edwards worked as an editor on several of Terence Malick’s films, and was credited as “Key Creative Consultant” on Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life. This isn’t surprising, since The Better Angels—which Malick produced—seems almost like a retelling of The Tree of Life. Not only does Edwards work slavishly in Malick’s elliptical style, but the story is essentially the same—a boy’s memories of saintly maternal influence and of an upright but joyless, emotionally distant father.
Also like The Tree of Life, The Better Angels, with its lingering, quivering attention to the natural world that surrounded these people, will seem hypnotic and powerful to some viewers—like me—and tiresome and exasperating to others. But to no viewers will it seem like a business-as-usual historical film.