Let’s get some facts out of the way right off the bat. The Better Angels is the directorial debut of one A.J. Edwards, whose previous filmmaking experience involved working on projects directed by Terrence Malick, whose distinct filmmaking style is easily apparent by simply watching one of his films. Malick is a producer on The Better Angels. It makes sense, then, that with Malick’s influence, The Better Angels comes across like one of his own directorial efforts, except it’s in black and white and is also short enough to not get tired of his style.
The film is about a couple of years in the childhood of one boy, Abe (Braydon Denney), as he lives in Indiana in the early 1800s. We meet his mother, Nancy (Brit Marling), his father, Thomas (Jason Clarke), and eventually his stepmother, Sarah (Diane Kruger). A man named Mr. Crawford (Wes Bentley) also shows up in the film, delivering dialogue that one might consider inspirational. Oh, right, one more thing: Abe is a young Abraham Lincoln, who would eventually grow up to become President of the United States of America. You may have heard of him once or twice before in your life.
There is very little of an overarching plot to The Better Angels. Mostly, we just follow around young Abe as he and his family go about their business. Surviving isn’t the easiest in the Indiana woods, so there are hardships and emotional moments that they’re going to go through, and which presumably are meant to shape Abe into the man he would eventually become.
But — outside of him being our protagonist, of course — the film doesn’t aim to make Abe “special.” It would be easy to fall into the trap of hero-worship when it comes to the character, or easily foreshadowing how great he would grow up to be, but The Better Angels doesn’t do that. Instead, it paints him as this random kid, shows us things that happened, and that’s that. In fact, you could easily miss a scene or two and assume that this story is just about some random kid and his family, completely ignoring that it’s about a future president.
That helps the film with its overall goal, which is to present to us exactly what it felt like to live in this particular time period and in this specific area. Most films are about telling a story; this film is about telling a mood. It sets an atmosphere, tone, and setting, and just lets us sit and take it all in. Often times, not a whole lot happens — because that’s how life was like. You do feel like you’re living with these characters.
I don’t know about you, but this type of film can often be a chore to sit through. I’ve still yet to make it through Malick’s own The New World precisely because of the way that it functions. The key to Edwards’ film is that it’s shorter. It runs for just over 90 minutes, and that’s more or less how long this filmmaking style can hold my attention. Mood and atmosphere can only work as the primary method of captivation for so long, and The Better Angels concludes right before that time runs out.
Despite being the protagonist and the main point of consistency in the story, The Better Angels doesn’t rely particularly hard on newcomer Braydon Denney, which is probably a wise choice. I don’t know if he’s a good actor — he doesn’t have to do too much in this film — but children typically aren’t. Instead, the majority of the heavier portions of the film are placed on the shoulders of the adults. Diane Kruger, Wes Bentley, Brit Marling, and Jason Clarke are all accomplished actors and more than capable of pulling off the characters they’re given here.
The Better Angels feels like a Terrence Malick film from start to finish, and since his films are often very polarizing, you’re going to know best whether or not that’s a good thing. It does give the film a look and feel that’s not exactly common. The story told here is less important than the audience feeling what it’s like to be with these characters, and that comes across well — even if it’s not always the most exciting time. The Better Angels is helped by its shorter running time, and even if you don’t enjoy it that much, at least it’s not 160 minutes long like some its inspiration’s films.