Movie Review: “The Better Angels” Suffers From Visual Technique Over Substance


Review by James McDonald

The story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in the harsh wilderness of Indiana and the hardships that shaped him, the tragedy that marked him for ever and the two women who guided him to immortality.

“The Better Angels” is the feature film directorial debut from A.J. Edwards which tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. Mr. Edwards has worked on several of reclusive director Terrence Malick’s movies, including “The New World”, “The Tree of Life” and his upcoming 2015 opus, “To the Wonder.” While working with Mr. Malick, he most certainly picked up some of his traits, including his use of spectacular cinematography, all the more luminescent in glorious black and white. At the same time though, he also picked up some of Mr. Malick’s less-fortunate attributes, like allowing said spectacular photography to overshadow everything else in the movie including the most important aspect of any film: the story.

The movie employs a rather uninviting and unnecessary voice-over that penetrates the story from time to time to inform us as to what is going on and what particular characters are thinking at any given time. I don’t need a voice-over to tell me these things, if that were the case, I’d read a book. Here, I want the story to unfold and get caught up in the emotions of the film but sadly, the beautiful visuals and delectable choice of exquisite classical music throughout, as gorgeous as they both are, serve more as a distraction from what is most important: again, the story. The acting on the whole, is fine. Braydon Denney as the young Abe, in his first film role, does a good job, considering the obvious lack of direction and dramatic weight considering his role.

Jason Clarke as Abe’s father Tom, sadly doesn’t have much to work with but according to this film and to history, he was a good man and a good father who could be very strict with his children when he had to be. After Abe’s mother died of milk sickness when he was only nine years old, his father re-married Sarah Bush Johnston (Diane Kruger) and over time, she and Abe became very close, with him referring to her as “Mother.” Ms. Kruger, like pretty much every other actor in the film, does a meritable job with her role but in the hands of a more capable director, both she and the rest of the cast could have been so much better. The movie centers on young Abe as we see him deal with the loss of his mother and the time between her death and the introduction of his new step-mother.

There are scenes of the children playing together, working together, fighting together, normal interactions that develop between siblings and other than one scene of a chain-link group of black slaves that Abe encounters in the forest one day, obviously an indication of what is to come, the story could have been about any regular normal kid in the world. The movie spends far too much time photographing anything and everything that is not essential to the heart of the film, beautiful sunsets, sunlight beaming through the forest, a burning fireplace and an overabundance of shots of flowing water from the nearby river and while they are magnificent to look at, at the end of the day, they do not add anything worthwhile to a story that unfortunately, already lacks any beneficial material about one of the greatest men to ever live.

In select theaters now

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James McDonald
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