The tone poem style of filmmaker Terrence Malick is so distinctive in the current state of cinema that each of his films tend to receive a stricter critique on the grounds of how pretentious they come across. However, those who think this way not only miss the point of what a tone poem is but also are not willing to realize the unreached potential that movies have. So when another filmmaker tries to tap into the style popularized by Malick, it’s easy to assume that this individual would be criticized for his approach too closely resembling Malick’s. In the case of The Better Angels, Malick serves as the film’s producer, which in turn has left many critics to undervalue the film by suggesting how strong his influence was on the overall effort. It’s a rather silly form of criticism because of how it doesn’t necessarily paint a picture of the film’s genuine effectiveness. After all, you don’t see every summer blockbuster being criticized for their many similarities to the films of Steven Spielberg or even Spieldberg’s similarities to Alfred Hitchcock. But because the tone poem style is so limited in American cinema, it must constantly be discounted as a rip off of Malick – even to the point where many critics say that Malick rips himself off. Regardless, The Better Angels stands on its own merits even while the awareness of Malick is present.
It’s a personal film that lyrically examines the adolescence of Abraham Lincoln (Braydon Denney). Written and directed by A.J. Edwards, the film is a peculiar one that may not meet the expectations of your typical history buff. Instead of being some sort of factually epic historical drama concerning the 16th President’s childhood, the film is more of a sublime portrait of what it meant to grow up on the American frontier in the early 1800s. This includes run-ins with disease, parental corporal punishment, and day-to-day manual labor.
Life back then was obviously very different from now; yet human relationships within a household remain pretty similar in most regards. By showing vignettes of Abe’s youth, the film explores him as an individual through his interactions with his family. It’s an approach that is more intimate and mindful of each character’s humanity as opposed to the detached characterizations seen in other films about iconic historical figures. While this could easily be uninteresting to some viewers, there is something dignified about seeing Abe living his rough-and-tumble pioneer childhood. Perhaps it’s the looming knowledge that he just happens to grow up to become one the most influential people of all time.
The Better Angels has a tendency to upstage its characters with its cinematic techniques. This is where claims of the film being ostentatious are in reference to. Though one person’s poison is another person’s meat. To me, the film’s very apparent style heightens the rhythmic mood and emphasizes the details in setting and action. This in essence allows Abe to blend in with the vigorous atmosphere and removes the burden of his expected future. It’s a lot like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in that it plays out as a coming-of-age story immersed in fundamental themes concerning social maturation.
With strong performances by Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, and Brit Marling, The Better Angels is a film that caresses viewers with intrigue and never compromises its subject matter. Films like these do not come around too often, which is why it shouldn’t be dismissed. Like the mystic chords of memory, director Edwards calls to mind the power of filmmaking.