Sundance Review: Terrence Malick Produced ‘The Better Angels’ Starring Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger & Brit Marling

Reviews
by Rodrigo Perez
January 21, 2014 11:16 AM
13 Comments
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Working closely under the tutelage of Terrence Malick for several years now, editor and second-unit director turned writer/director A.J. Edwards (who has logged time on "The New World," "The Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder"), might have been better advised to get out from under the shadow of his mentor for his feature-length debut, “The Better Angels.” Instead the fledgling filmmaker is content to bask adoringly under the silhouette of his teacher to the dealbreaking detriment of his first film. Perhaps intended as loving homage, “The Better Angels” instead borders deeply on self-serious parody, virtually utilizing a checklist of every stylistic trope Edwards’ cinematic maharishi uses — hushed ponderous voice-over about the nature of life; that gliding camera; dancing wide-angle shots; jump cuts; dancing in fields; a spiritual connection to nature – and one by one employing them all without a trace of ironic self-awareness.

Set in Indiana in 1817, this nature-adoring drama charts life of Abraham Lincoln as a young boy (played by newcomer Braydon Denney who barely utters a word), in a film that could alternately be called “Lincoln: Year One (A Malick Film).” Cared for by his divine and graceful mother (Brit Marling) and kept in line by his domineering, angry and abusive father (Jason Clarke; sensing any familiar patterns?), the young Lincoln is a quiet, but thoughtful boy who is intelligent, considerate and sensitive. Living under harsh survival-in-the-woods conditions, plague steals his mother away, but his stern father eventually finds a loving new bride and remarries (Diane Kruger). Playmates find Lincoln aloof and odd, but teachers, and one caring tutor in particular (Wes Bentley), informs the parents that the boy is extremely gifted and will grow to become a special man (something his birth mother was always intoning).

And that’s basically as much story as “The Better Angels” gives the audience, choosing instead to focus on mood, nature, divinity and celestial atmosphere like a certain filmmaker you might have heard of with the initials TM.  And though “The Better Angels” is pretty to look at, giving us a sense of what a Terrence Malick film in stark and austere black and white photography might look like, Edwards’ picture has very little of its own distinctive voice or narrative thrust. Not that Edwards’ film fails because it’s short on plot – there’s certainly much bigger problems to address.

“The Better Angels” is so tenderly imitative it soon begins to grow crushingly dull and bland. If the young grasshopper might have developed his own fighting style, he may have stood a chance, but by emulating the sensei blow for blow, our respect for the pupil diminishes minute by minute. Scored by Hanan Townshend, Malick’s go-to composer now, while the music is sonorous of its own accord, next to the all-too familiar visuals and style, they also bleed into the haze of banally appropriated elements. It all combines into a lulling feeling of familiarity, and you certainly wouldn't be blamed if you drifted into a catnap, or were caught doing mental laundry about something (or anything) else besides what was happening on screen.

Creating an exact facsimile of the master, Edwards is clearly a talented filmmaker because if certain audiences didn’t know, they’d assume his well-crafted certified copy was a Terrence Malick film without a doubt; it’s that convincingly faithful. However, that reverence to Terrence Malick is spiritually depleting and uninspired, and while “The Better Angels” might not be the worst film we’ve seen at Sundance, the manner in which it genuflects to its guru makes for one of the most unimaginative, uninvolving and derivative experiences of the festival thus far. [D+]

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13 Comments

  • Gargamel | January 22, 2014 3:05 AMReply

    One reviewer raves because the film is so much like a Malick film, another says it's horrible for the exact same reason. Does anyone hate a Malick film because it's "just like a Malick film?" If you consider how involved AJ Edwards has been in Malick's recent work, perhaps it's appropriate to give a little bit of consideration that some of the direction Malick has gone has been due to his collaboration with Edwards. This isn't a full defense of the film, but the reviewer should at least TRY to engage the film on its own terms. And given how many filmmakers have pathetically attempted and failed to imitate Terrence Malick, isn't there at least a little bit of accomplishment in actually doing so?

  • Anonymouse | January 22, 2014 11:33 PM

    @Gargamel

    Indeed, I can see the resemblance in those works to Malick's. I thought it worked rather well in the opening sequences of Aint Them Bodies Saints and the trailer for Man of Steel (the film I found to be lackluster). Imitation is the best form of flattery, after all.

  • GARGAMEL | January 22, 2014 4:54 PM

    I'm not even sure how to begin to list the names of directors who have had the term "Malickian" lavished upon them in recent years.

    Everything from the MAN OF STEEL trailer to BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD to AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS. It hardly ends there. People seem to assume that "nature + voiceover" = Malick.

  • Anonymouse | January 22, 2014 11:29 AM

    I've noticed several television ads imitating Malick's work: from Levi's to the recent iPad ads. The only director I've noticed to embrace Malick's cinematographic style is Shane Carruth and I'll argue he succeeded in using the style for his own ends.

    Which other directors have imitated Malick's style? I ask out of curiosity.

  • JOHN | January 21, 2014 10:25 PMReply

    Ouch!
    OK so it's looks and sounds like a Malick film. Other than that are there any comments about The Better Angels itself? There's not much in the way of content in this review. Sounds like the film didn't get a fair chance from the get-go.

  • MDL | January 21, 2014 4:38 PMReply

    Variety liked it. "The Better Angels... makes for a sublime, transfixing, and informative look at the early life of Abraham Lincoln."

  • A.J. Edwards | January 28, 2014 5:50 PM

    That wasn't Variety.

  • Frank | January 21, 2014 12:40 PMReply

    You spent five paragraphs saying "It's like a Malick movie," over and over again in slightly different ways. I could have surmised this from watching the trailer. How about you at least try to grapple with a movie in a meaningful way instead of rushing to be first out the gate with a festival review.

  • mf | January 21, 2014 2:14 PM

    they'd still hate it because it's a piece of absolute garbage

  • Anonymouse | January 21, 2014 11:52 AMReply

    i wonder how this film would be rated by eyes that have not seen any Malick films?

  • MF | January 22, 2014 5:55 PM

    about as insightful as this movie - which, again, is a piece of garbage

  • Anonymouse | January 21, 2014 2:52 PM

    @MF That was quite an insightful response.

  • mf | January 21, 2014 2:14 PM

    they'd still hate it because it's a piece of absolute garbage

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