Film Review: ‘The Better Angels,’ an Abe Lincoln Origin Story

By Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com
November 6, 2014 Updated: November 15, 2014

That log cabin business was no joke. Abraham Lincoln’s formative years put the “hard” in hardscrabble. Yet, they shaped him into the commanding and compassionate leader our nation needed.

Young Master Lincoln comes of age in A.J. Edwards’s impressionistic “The Better Angels,” co-produced by Terrence Malick.

Narrated by Lincoln’s cousin reminiscing shortly after his assassination, “Angels” chronicles three years of his life as a gangly youth in the back hills of Indiana.

Article Quote: 'The Better Angels,' An Abe Lincoln Origin Story

His devout but illiterate mother Nancy Lincoln recognizes her youngest son’s remarkable intellectual gifts, but his gruff father sees no value in a bookish education. Nancy would die at a tragically young age, but her religious convictions clearly shaped her sensitive son’s ethical values.

A short while later, Tom Lincoln remarries. Sarah Lincoln also takes a shine to young Abraham, finally convincing her husband to support his education.

Throughout “Angels,” Malick protégé Edwards maintains a style consistent with that of his mentor, but scene after scene resonate with far greater emotion than the austere “To the Wonder.”

This is a simple story, but it is deeply moving. Aside from the exquisitely beautiful opening shots of the Lincoln Memorial, “Angels” never leaves the Indiana Hill country, circa 1817. Yet, Lincoln’s later significance is unambiguously stamped upon the film.

Braydon Denney as the young Abraham Lincoln in "The Better Angels." (Amplify Releasing)
Braydon Denney as the young Abraham Lincoln in “The Better Angels.” (Amplify Releasing)

Visually, “Angels” is a true work of art. Each and every frame of Matthew J. Lloyd’s black-and-white cinematography is suitable for framing. As sort of an illustrative, tone poem tribute to Lincoln, “Angels” boasts several very fine performances.

Diane Kruger’s turn as Sarah Lincoln is wonderfully sensitive and finely wrought, but Jason Clarke’s work as the demanding but ultimately loving Tom Lincoln sneaks up on viewers, landing a total knockout punch.

Yes, “Angels” is deliberately paced, favoring sensory stimulus over narrative drive. It is also an unusually powerful and evocative film. There will be plenty of people who just won’t get it, but they will be wrong.

Elegantly crafted, it is one of the high-end high points of this year’s Sundance. Enthusiastically recommended for patrons with adult attention spans, “The Better Angels” comes out in limited release on Nov. 7.

 

‘The Better Angels’
Director: A.J. Edwards
Starring: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Release date: Nov. 7
Rated PG

4 stars out of 5

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com

Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com