The Better Angels Dir. A.J. Edwards

[Amplify Releasing; 2014]

Styles: engigmatic historical drama, spiritual fiction, Terrence Malick
Others: The New World, The Tree of Life, Young Mr. Lincoln

“Everybody has that feeling when they look at a work of art and it’s right, that sudden familiarity, a sort of recognition, as though they were creating it themselves, as though it were being created through them while they look at it or listen to it…”
—William Gaddis, The Recognitions

One of the great dilemmas of art in this post-modern era of increasing imitation, replication, and reboots is the difficulty in experiencing recognition: not in terms of noticing influences or references, but in finding something true, unique, and meaningful at the core of a piece of art. Especially as attention spans might be diminishing and our tendencies to satiate our desire for art transform into consumerist impulses — a new scratch that can only be itched by the next episode, the next new release, the next new thing — the feeling that William Gaddis describes is becoming increasingly rare. The impression that it can be, should be, or perhaps even must be, contained in something with an origin outside of itself is becoming a more pervasive and persuasive concept, even more so in the world of film and television as new distribution techniques put a higher demand on known entities. But what, pray tell, does this have to do with A.J. Edwards debut film, The Better Angels? Well, everything and nothing.

Since 2005, Edwards has been something of a protégé of Terrence Malick, working as an editorial assistant on The New World, a “special consultant” on The Tree of Life, and one of five credited editors on To the Wonder — and it’s clear from first frame of The Better Angels that Edwards is not internalizing lessons learned and altering them into a personal style of his own. This is quite simply as close to a Terrence Malick film as you’ll see that’s not directed by the man himself. As a lifelong admirer of Malick (especially his recent two masterpieces prior to To the Wonder), his return to the film world with a relatively rapid turnaround time between films, especially for a man who took a two-decade reprieve from directing, has been nothing short of a godsend, and even with his disappointing previous film, experiencing anything with his imprint is a cherished experience.

So, when I began watching The Better Angels and noticed the same hushed narration, elliptical editing, and numerous shots practically lifted from the Malick canon (extreme low-angle shots of trees, women twirling through fields, characters pondering the nature of existence), I was both troubled by the virtual cinematic theft and enthralled by experiencing something so close in tone and spirit to the master’s. After all, I no longer have the patience to wait even 2 years for a real Malick film, so what’s wrong with enjoying one from his apprentice that he himself produced? I don’t pretend to have any answers; I’m simply plagued by the questions.

Even the film’s conceit is pure Malick, an almost free-form account of a short period of Abraham Lincoln’s (Braydon Denney) childhood, mostly around the age of 10, and the relationships with his loving mother and harsh, demanding father as well as his spiritual connection with nature in the backwoods of Kentucky. Similar to The New World’s conflict between an unsustainable paradise and an implacably encroaching modern world full of knowledge and restrictions and The Tree of Life’s all-pervasive masculine-feminine dichotomy, The Better Angels is of two minds, approaching Lincoln early year(s) not as a way of understanding the man he would become or focusing on a penultimate point in his childhood that would drive him towards the presidency, but rather as a recognizable entry point into capturing the mythic feel of early American life, contrasting the pure freedom of his time with his mother (Brit Marling), stepmother (Diane Kruger), and siblings with the shift towards a more regimented life of work under the strict eye of his father (Jason Clarke) and his teacher (Wes Bentley) who takes over the duty of male role model. It is to Edwards’s credit that with this minimal narrative, he is able to beautifully depict the essence of these two worlds, the powerful sense of loss not only in the death of Abe’s mother but of his transition from a blissful, carefree world of his youth to one of rules and responsibility, and the strong imprints left on him by his two mothers, two male figures and his environment.

“That romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original … Even 200 years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way.”
—William Gaddis, The Recognitions

The stunning black-and-white cinematography is more than enough to make this a worthy recommendation, but it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is a mere facsimile of a Malick film — an expertly crafted one for sure, but still tainted by its unwavering reverence for its greatest influence, an experience akin to looking at a copy of painting with all the right pieces in all the right places, but without that recognition of something wholly true to itself. Ultimately, one’s feelings towards The Better Angels will depend very much on whether this appears as a cheap copy or creative theft that improves upon, or at least changes, the style upon which it was founded. There may not be any originality on display, but there is skill in Edwards’s craft. After all, copying the work of a master is no small task, especially one so unique and elusive, so kudos to this young director for making quite a good film — even if the guiding hand of Malick is present in every shot.

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