The Better Angels, the debut feature film from A.J. Edwards, is a certain kind of movie, and therefore demands a certain kind of review. It’s a movie that’s impenetrable to a lot of different ways one might review a movie, and therefore I won’t try to review it any of those ways. I think this will still help you decide whether to see it or not (which is a very important function of a movie review, if not the only one) but, at least in part because that’s a fairly easy task and I have a substantially larger quantity of digital real estate I am at once both privileged and obligated to fully develop, this review will wander. I hope that’s all right. It’s also appropriate, because The Better Angels is a wandering kind of movie about a wandering people.
You are likely to hear two names come up in any review or discussion of The Better Angels, but only one of them is really helpful in determining whether or not you should see this movie. The unhelpful name is Abraham Lincoln, whose childhood is the movie’s subject. Counterintuitively, this does not mean that wanting to see a movie about Abraham Lincoln, as a child or at any age, is a good heuristic for whether one should see this movie. This movie may be about its subject in a way that makes the word “about” accrue a surprising definition.
The more useful name is Terrence Malick, the legendary director and the first credited producer of The Better Angels. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you liked any of Malick’s movies – Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder – you will probably like The Better Angels. More importantly, if you disliked any or all of Malick’s movies (and you would be far from alone) you will definitely dislike The Better Angels. This may be less-than-helpful if you haven’t seen any of Terrence Malick’s movies, but that leads to an obvious solution, which is that you should go watch one (or all!) of those movies before you watch The Better Angels. If that sounds like too much work, you probably shouldn’t see The Better Angels. A final test – if the most important thing to you in seeing a movie is the story, as opposed to the atmosphere, craft, or style, then don’t see this movie.
Now we’ve completed the business; let’s talk art. Malick is one of those cinema surnames – Kubrick, Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino – that’s become an adjective, and for good reason. The form he developed is distinct and, unlike many others, fragile; it depends on the presence of all of its elements to function properly. One cannot simply borrow bits and pieces of Malick’s form, at least not horizontally; one must borrow vertically, making portions, or just the entirely, of one’s film in that defining vernacular. This is imposing, in some ways suffocating, and definitely polarizing – for every person who finds that language transcendent and transporting, there’s another (or likely dozens of others) who find it baffling, inscrutable, or simply annoying. When I saw The Tree of Life I was thoroughly and sternly briefed by the teenager selling tickets on the theater’s refund policy; this had become a chronic issue at this theater, and presumably many others.
As far as Malickian cinema, The Better Angels is, unfortunately, merely good – it’s no George Washington, and it’s definitely no The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; though to be fair, what is? No, The Better Angels is merely good – it feels a little overwhelmed by its subject, and at times the choice of vernacular feels as much inspired by a desire to avoid a more direct approach to the towering figure at its center (Braydon Denney, perfectly cast). This may also explain why it hands voice-over duty not to its protagonist, or even anyone surnamed “Lincoln,” but to a cousin adopted into the family’s wanderings (Cameron Mitchell Williams). This has the unfortunate effect, however, of not just leaving the film’s central figure mysterious, but also Lincoln’s two mothers (Brit Marling and Diane Kruger). This leaves them simultaneously central yet largely voiceless, and it’s difficult to tell how much this is intended to highlight the milieu of early 19th century poor pioneers and how much it is unintentionally echoing it.
The real question I had after watching The Better Angels, though, was whether films like this have a future. Terrence Malick was born during World War II and made his name, cemented his legacy, and spawned his style with a pair of films made during the 1970s, not just the high point of Hollywood’s anti-establishment insurgency but also the bright twilight of an era when most movies were largely seen in theaters or not at all. Among the myriad impacts of the rise of the VCR and its successor technologies was a reorientation of the film industry towards what succeeded on the television screen.
Ironically, even as our home television screens have become increasingly able to replicate the big screen experience technically, the way we live has made it increasingly impossible to replicate it emotionally. Seeing a movie in a theater is first and foremost an immersive experience, one in which everything beyond the borders of the screen, for those precious hours, might as well not exist. In one’s own home, surrounded by phones and computers endlessly demanding our attention, that kind of immersion is requires increasingly more work, and therefore is increasingly something more difficult to achieve. More and more the well-educated are turning away from independent cinema and towards consuming their moving images in 21- and 42-minute increments. Serialization, though, favors the narrative over the aesthetic (whether Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks manages to solve that problem remains to be seen).
The theatergoing experience is also changing. Plagued by increasing costs and declining revenue, Hollywood is making fewer and fewer movies; driven by necessity and greed towards international dollars, it’s concentrating more on those genres (the explody ones) that easily transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. This is both an opportunity and a hazard for eccentric and intensely experiential films like The Better Angels. Whether or not we see more movies like this, and more films in general willing to challenge people to return to theaters for uniquely compelling experiences, is one of the key questions of our cinematic era.