THE BETTER ANGELS
Director: A.J. Edwards
Cast: Braydon Denney, Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Cameron Mitchell Williams
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and brief smoking)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 11/7/14 (limited); 11/14/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 14, 2014
If not for an epigraph featuring a quotation from the man or an opening montage of images of the memorial honoring him (without showing the statue at its heart), one would be hard-pressed to realize that The Better Angels tells the story of a young Abraham Lincoln. Neither the boy's Christian name nor surname is ever spoken. The biographical details are here, but in the context of the movie, they are as anonymous as the boy. Indeed, the story of Abe and his family may as well be that of any boy growing up in Indiana circa 1817, filled with simple pleasures and backbreaking chores, illness and premature death, and a general feeling of certainty about one's place in the world.
That is the point, we suppose. Out of humble beginnings, greatness arises. Before he became one of the most important and beloved men in history, Abraham Lincoln was a boy whose background showed no hints of distinction.
That upbringing, of course, has become the stuff of legend. We know of a young Abe who taught himself to read. We envision an Abe reading by candlelight while his family, who had no education or real concern for it, slept. We recall a story of Abe writing on the floor of the log cabin where he grew up with whatever he could find. The ash from the stove sticks out in the mind, along with something about a chalkboard by the stove, although that's a bit fuzzy.
Writer/director A.J. Edwards' debut movie comes across as an attempt to separate Lincoln from his legend. In a way, the movie does. It focuses on the mundane—scenes of farm work, reading, playing in a field with relatives, tension at the dinner table with his pa.
Aren't these, though, part of the legend? Is the act of removing Lincoln's name from the proceedings an act of normalizing him, or is it intrinsically an act of enlarging his stature? Young Abe (Braydon Denney, who very much looks like our concept of how a young Lincoln would appear) is more than the everyday boy who would become President here. He is the boy as Everyman. If this boy could become great, anyone can.
That is, at its core, the legend of Lincoln. Perhaps, then, Edwards is not attempting to separate the man from the legend but to whittle down that legend to its foundation.
There's reason to believe that to be the case about the movie, too. It's assembled as a series of memories recalled by Abe's cousin Dennis (Cameron Mitchell Williams), who promises in narration to tell us the real story of his cousin.
We see Abe reprimanded by his father Tom (Jason Clarke) for having his mind on trifling things when there's work to be done or dinner to be eaten. We see his mother Nancy (Brit Marling) encourage her son to read and die due to poisoned milk.
After Tom takes a trip to Kentucky to find a new wife, we see Abe's stepmother Sarah (Diane Kruger) arrive with her own children and become another mother who encourages the boy's learning, even when her husband dismisses the notion. We see Abe come under the tutelage of Mr. Crawford (Wes Bentley), the teacher at a nearby school who thinks Abe shows promise and tells him to never stop learning. A minister tells his congregation that a fight for the downtrodden is a holy deed, and later, Abe witnesses a caravan of slaves through the woods.
All of this is captured in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd that feels at once stark (the dirt of the fields, the snow of a harsh winter, a rain of autumn leaves as the poisoned milk starts its work) and romantic (A shot of the starry nighttime sky is stunning). Edwards' camera moves like a phantom through the scenery—sneaking up to a window or through the gate of a garden—in dreamy, repeated images (Some shots are repeated one after another for some unknown reason).
The effect becomes repetitive, and that ultimately emphasizes the rather slight nature of the story here. We simultaneously know we're watching the story of Lincoln and feel Edwards' influence in forcing us to remove ourselves from that story (The omission of his name, which seems forced in so many scenes, feels like the buildup to a great release upon hearing it, but the release never arrives). It's biography by means of artificial obfuscation. As the movie's visual and narrative patterns become more and more obvious, we find ourselves spending more time attempting to decipher Edwards' rationale for the mystery than we do gleaning whatever information Edwards wants to communicate about Lincoln.
The movie is intentionally void of almost all vital context, but does it really need it? What we do learn is what we likely already knew from apocryphal and factual biography, and whatever gaps exist are easily filled by the same sources. What we don't know for certain is the reason for this approach to Lincoln's story, which is and isn't legend—is and isn't Lincoln. The Better Angels is a mystery that needn't be one, but it is and almost maddeningly so.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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