The Better Angels

Abe-bout a Boy


Starring: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger

Review written by Robert D. Patrick

The Better Angels offers no levity, no flecks of light or booming laughter. No school taught anecdotes or conventional wisdom. The Better Angels, instead, leaves you with sharp monochrome images of buzzing insects and weathered faces. Arboreal light and rough, wooden chairs. The synopsis will tell you that this film is chiefly about Abraham Lincoln. About his life as a boy, living with his family in near poverty and malaise. Yet, the narrative is more about emotion than important historical footnotes.

There is nothing emblematic of a big-time biopic. You will not find rousing, clever dialogue or flashy effects. The Better Angels rests its weary shoulders on the old bones of forgotten history. We see shadows being cut in half by the dawn. Tall grass emblazoned by dirty hands and running feet. Director A.J. Edwards channels the spiritual nature of Terrence Malick and the muted meditation of Kelly Reichardt. Music swells and dips, rolls and foams. The Better Angels makes you think about the curiousity of our past, the gossamer fog of our forefathers. Omissions, when it comes down to the narrative, are just as important as the text. Bereft of color, Edwards chooses to siphon his world of green tufts of grass or blue skies. What is left is ash and marble. Voiceovers, often times spectral and hushed, call to mind The Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life. There is a lot of poetry in this silently ambitious opus, even if it may seem derivative of other films in the same vein.

The very same characteristics that make The Better Angels textural, however, gives the picture its pockmarks. The pacing is sometimes languid, and, even at a practical ninety-minutes, seems to feel too drawn. Still, the abrupt roar of rivers and the intangible way that this movie makes you almost religiously experience nature, makes the journey worthwhile. There is a lot of life in the tumbling darkness, in the crunch of fallen leaves. We know Abraham Lincoln’s appearance, but here, his quiet grandeur and slim frame is hidden in the thick mist of the future. Passion and prowess, wisdom and etiquette is in the cocoon of a wandering boy’s eyes.

Edwards culls a lot from the viewer’s subconscious, and there is something to be said for that. The Better Angels – now playing at Landmark’s Ken Cinemas – may be one of the finest American movies of 2014, if only for its contempt of pomp and its embrace of thought. What is history? And what do the forgotten parts mean?

Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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