Rare is the biographical film that leaves its subject more obscure than before, but A.J. Edwards’s The Better Angels does just that for Abraham Lincoln, approaching the childhood of the 16th president as an emotionally slight tone poem wrangled from impressionistic imagery.
Edwards served as an editor on several of Terrence Malick’s recent films, including The Tree of Life, and Malick (who lends his official stamp as a producer) is all over this like a contagious infection. It’s the life of Lincoln intimated through tender hand-touching, rustling foliage, and wondering views of treetops — less a historical account than an homage to the overbearing influence of style.
There is a story, detailed via narration from Abe’s cousin, which mostly concerns the death of the young boy’s mother (Brit Marling) and his developing bond with his father’s second wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger). Edwards’s visual style has its high-impact moments, his sharp black-and-white photography producing dramatic still shots of cabin doors illuminated by daylight and star-flecked night skies. But he’s no storyteller.
This young Lincoln (Braydon Denney) is quiet and morose, his stiff moral code enforced by an intimidating father (Jason Clarke), and it’s not until Sarah arrives that he does much more than stare obliquely into the distance. The supporting characters are just as vague, thanks in no small part to Edwards’s manic camerawork, which pitches their conversations at odd, nauseating angles, chopping their chores, games, and casual intimacies into a ragged daisy chain of overlapping cuts.
Kruger and Clarke do their best to look steadfast with a camera swooping around them like a wounded bird, but there’s no rescuing this imprecise family portrait from its own impulses toward obscurity.