There’s little debate as to which U.S. president is the defacto favorite of Hollywood. Abraham Lincoln wins, whether it’s John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, starring a fresh-faced Henry Fonda, or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which earned Oscar gold for Daniel Day Lewis. Then, there’s also the silly, senseless Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. For the life of me, I can’t think of one resonating picture about George Washington and that famous cherry tree. When it comes to presidential hagiography, it’s Honest Abe who gets the lion’s share of celluloid exposure.
Considering all the previous Lincoln biopics, A.J. Edwards’s The Better Angels is another creature entirely. As certain as there’s black and white — and we should mention that the film is shot entirely in black-and-white — it’s about a 13-year-old Abe without ever really mentioning the lad’s name. It would be unfair to call Better Angels plotless, though it unfurls in arcane wisps and etherial shards that you really can’t call linear. But through Edwards’ careful guidance, the flick still manages to paint a visceral and comprehensive collage. One might label it a historical record in dreams, something that the trippy visualist Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life) made an art form, and, interestingly enough, he’s one of the film’s producers and worked with Edwards on To the Wonder.
The Better Angels begins with a quick shot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and with it we get a heavy gruff Kentucky drawl from Lincoln’s last surviving cousin, Dennis Hanks (Cameron Mitchell Williams), who lived with the young Abe (Braydon Denney) and his family for over a decade after his family perished. Then we’re transported to the bucolic woods, circa 1817 when the Lincolns moved from Kentucky to Indiana, with tall, sparsely-leafed trees that visually allow the potency of the late autumn sun to be captured on film. The slow pontificating voice-overs and tight focus on nature busy away as quiet business unfurls like a black-and-white extract from Malick’s New World 2005. The influences of the senior filmmaker are undeniable.
The film’s overall binding theme, underlined by the title and Lincoln’s well known snippet, “All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother,” places a square onus upon Abe’s mom (indie darling Brit Marling). She’s angelic to nearly an idyllic degree, giving and warm, uneducated and open, and fully aware of the seeds of something more within her son. But with such build up of the bond between mother and 10-year-old son, things suddenly go poof. The Lincolns, as history has it, are poisoned by tainted cow’s milk and fall ill. After a nightmarish sequence worthy of Jacob’s Ladder, Nancy Lincoln dies. The film’s barely begun and the motif seems irreparably fractured — unless all the celestial hype is intended to be Nancy shining down on the young Abe?
Abe’s father Tom (Jason Clarke, the blue eyed torturer in Zero Dark Thirty), stern and focused, returns to Kentucky to garner a new wife (Diane Kruger), who in terms of Abe, fills the same role, wandering the woods and attempting to answer questions about the universe and the nature of man. She too holds the boy with regard, much to the chagrin of Abe’s new stepbrothers. The film hints that there was much debate over the merits of the young and tacit Abe. One of his supporters, the local school teacher Mr. Crawford (Wes Bentley), notices the young Lincoln’s greatness. And despite a somewhat apathetic Tom, Abe’s father also senses the future president’s eminence. But the odd little stumbling block within Better Angels is that all this praise of promise and prowess heaped upon little Abe comes foisted through narration and not felt through Edwards’s vignettes of vaporous prose and shadowy imagery.
Going one step further, Denney simply looks nothing like Lincoln, an unattractive man if there ever was one. The actor who plays the young icon looks something like a Calvin Klein model as he stands taut in his suspenders and ready to hold his own against a much bigger foe in a grapple. There’s no connection to the Lincoln that Lewis rendered or even Fonda. The bread crumbs from here to there are gone, eaten by marauding crows. The one scene that connects us back to the man honored in stone on the Potomac River, comes when Abe, on a walkabout of sorts, passes out at the base of a tree in the far woods and is awakened by a passing succession of shackled slaves. The low angle cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd sends it home poignantly, but given Lincoln’s monumental sacrifice and historical gains, such alluring devices from Malick’s arsenal, feel twee and insincere, as if squeezing sustenance from a stone. The film’s end reflects its start within historical context and relativity. And despite the in between, which lingers as a beguiling experience, the broader scope is curious without provoking curiosity.