BERLIN – “The student has become the master” is, at least more ofthen not, a complimentary phrase, denoting the completion of an education, the expansion of a tradition or, at the very least, the perfection of one good party trick. Yet snider derivations of that sentiment have been applied my a number of colleagues to A.J. Edwards’s “The Better Angels,” a lushly conceived, exhaustively realized debut feature that’d be pretty formidable stuff coming from a more practised filmmaker — and derided in some quarters as a self-impressed knock-off.
It’d be impossible not to mention Terrence Malick’s name at least once in even the most cursory discussion of this sense-driven historical drama, which portrays the childhood years of an unnamed Abraham Lincoln in oblique, impressionistic fashion. Malick is one of the film’s producers, for starters, while Edwards is a direct protégé of the contemporary’s cinema’s pre-eminent enigmatic tone poet, having worked as an editor and second unit director on “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” and the forthcoming “Knight of Cups.”
It goes without saying that Malick’s protracted productions are unlikely to be in-and-out experiences for his below-the-line collaborators; work on three of them back to back, meanwhile, and chances are a bit of his singular aesthetic is going to bleed into your system. Or quite a lot, as suggested by the ecstatic rusticism of “The Better Angels.” It’s shot in black and white, which is something Malick hasn’t done before, but the camerawork’s gliding kineticism and porous absorption of light are dreamily familiar, or familiarly dreamy — as are the film’s preference for hushed narration over already spare dialogue, catholic appropriation of classical music and irregular, spiritually preoccupied narrative. A.J. Edwards is a student of Terrence Malick, and he doesn’t care who knows it.
To dismiss “The Better Angels” for its obviously derivative qualities, however, is to throw an awful lot of baby out with the sun-dappled bathwater. To start with, if the entire enterprise were nothing more than a Malick tribute act, it’d still be a pretty good one: Edwards and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd have an eye for liquid, land-attuned composition that can’t be copied or faked. Shots convey perspective and psychology, not mere pictorial pleasure; there’s no vacant prettiness here. But Edwards’ feature also boasts some bold breaks from the Malick house style: there’s an emotional and visual severity to the piece, and a preoccupation with rootsy Americana texture, that feels very much its own. (If you were to glibly pitch it to a studio exec — and ensure you never work in the industry again — you might describe it as “‘The Tree of Life’ meets ‘The Turin Horse.'”)
As historical drama, it’s slightly more anchored in actual history than, say, Malick’s wildly visionary “The New World”: opening with a shot of the stately immovable Lincoln Memorial, before jumping back to the crunchy Indiana woods where Honest Abe grew up, seemingly announces the film’s intension to celebrate real life (or at least imagined real life) from iconography and mythicism. Several scenes linger with fascination on details and rituals of this rural community, though a simple family setup eventually emerges: stern, rough-handed father Tom Lincoln (Jason Clarke), his wife Nancy (Brit Marling) and their two children — one of them, of course, the eight-year-old future President.
Plagues and illnesses come and go with the seasons; one of them takes Nancy, who’s replaced in short order by Sarah (not-plain and tall, played by Diane Kruger), who adds her own children to the household. Abe accepts this familial shift while beginning to assert his own manly identity. These events have been dutifully researched (much of the narration is drawn from interview texts), yet the film doesn’t dramatize them so much as observe them in the manner of water or weather — lives in constant motion, but susceptible entirely to time and fate.
Rather a lot happens in “The Better Angels” — life, growth, death — though many viewers (well, many of the few) will conclude that not much happens at all; Edwards is more interested in how history looked and felt as it was being constructed than the construction itself. If the tactility and lyricism of his filmmaking were gained from time spent working with Malick, so be it; such qualities are a gift, not a loan.