After his fabled decades of self-exile, Terrence Malick returned to filmmaking long enough to make at least one work that borders on self-parody — 2012’s To the Wonder, an elliptical tale of a man torn between two women, both of whom love twirling picturesquely in fields at sunset. Despite that, a filmmaker so revered is bound to have acolytes, and he has a devout one in writer-director A. J. Edwards. Edwards, not coincidentally, worked as an editor on Malick’s Wonder and The New World. His debut feature, The Better Angels, proves that this acorn hasn’t fallen very far from The Tree of Life.
For anyone who doesn’t recognize the “better angels” quotation, the connection is made in the opening moments of the film. The camera drifts through the lonely, snow-specked loggia of the Lincoln Memorial. (Cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd’s black-and-white work throughout is one of the film’s strengths.) In voiceover, Lincoln’s self-identified cousin announces in a creaky, cornpone voice that he “knowed him since the day he was born,” and embarks on telling us the story of growing up with young Abe.
Well, “story” suggests something with more narrative structure and urgency than what we get in the meditation that follows. Like the swoony-slow imagery familiar from Malick’s films, Angels is also beset by this Malick brand of voiceover: the cousin’s comments continue to intrude throughout, while not telling us a whole lot.
We meet the improbably angelic-looking Abe as a boy, played by Braydon Denney. His pa (Jason Clarke) works hard on the family’s Kentucky farm, and doesn’t much truck with Abe’s dreamy, book-learnin’ ways. But the boy’s intellectual hunger is encouraged by his ma (Brit Marling), who dies from drinking bad milk, unfortunately. Fortunately, Pa Lincoln lucks out with second wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger), and so does Abe; she becomes as much his protectorate as his own mother was.
That’s the story. A boy grows up scrapping hard and dreaming big on a farm. In some ways, it could be any kid. Why and how he became Lincoln is not as intrinsic to the story as the way it’s told — except, maybe, for the scene in which young Abe encounters a band of shackled slaves in the woods, or from comments about the boy’s ingrained honesty made by his schoolmaster (Wes Bentley, in a cameo). You can appreciate The Better Angels for avoiding didactic, manufactured scenes and historically freighted dialogue familiar from mediocre biopics. But what it offers instead has a mighty slow pulse.
I’d rather see directors imitating Malick than, say, Michael Bay. Some of you may remember how the art houses in the nineties got hijacked by Tarantino wannabes, young filmmakers whose works were equal parts gratuitous blood splatters and hardboiled dialogue derived almost entirely from the f-word. Those movies bored with excess. Better Angels bores with the opposite. It’s endlessly handsome, austere and sincere. But you can’t help feeling that it’s trying to sell you a product — a view of American frontier life both physically muddy and spiritually unspoiled. The longer the movie goes on, you start to suspect that, no matter how beautifully the package is wrapped, there’s nothing much inside it.
The Better Angels. With Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Braydon Denney. Written and directed by A. J. Edwards. Rated PG. 95 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.