Friday, 14 November 2014

THE BETTER ANGELS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Malick protege's gorgeous rural period piece

Log cabin.

Deep woods.
A boy's love

for his mother.
The Better Angels (2014)
Dir. A.J. Edwards
Starring: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Braydon Denney

Review By Greg Klymkiw

In life and even after death, our real angels are indeed, as the title of this great film tells us, The Better Angels.

Fading up from a pitch black silent screen, one simple, powerful quotation from President Abraham Lincoln, tells us, and in retrospect, corroborates that this is the very core and essence of the dazzling directorial debut of Terrence Malick's longtime editor A.J. Edwards. It reads:
"All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."
As the text fades down, we're left with a silent black screen for a few moments until a stately, ravishingly composed and arranged orchestral score envelopes us in the dark. Once the piece ends, we're greeted by harsh monochrome light attempting to break through an overcast sky and resting upon a set of steps that lead upwards to a series of majestic columns.

Moving inside and beyond this brief exterior shot, we're treated to a series of images by a camera aimed along the massive columns as they try to reach beyond the ceiling to be nourished by the light of the heavens. We get a brief glimpse of a bronze plaque embedded into the back wall and try as we might, it's impossible to make out what the words represent since the camera turns itself around as if from the point of view of these words, the plaque flanked by sculpted doves.

From within the darkness of this perspective we finally get a glimpse of the light pouring through the massive columns as the voice of an old man asks, "You wondering what kind of boy he was?" And then, we're gloriously winded by a smash cut to a river at dusk, the still water defined on either side by banks of majestic trees casting dark shadows upon the shimmering beauty, at once beautiful and alternately not unlike a visual representative of a lamentation for a time long passed.

This transition from the cold stone under grey light, representing something long dead, but worthy of the sort of worship its architecture demands, to the stunning beauty of the natural world is not only cinematically powerful, but in fact, is part of the film's overall style and storytelling techniques which, far exceed the cerebral pretence of Edwards' mentor, colleague and producer of this film. Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and To The Wonder were both such ludicrous wanks that it's kind of cool seeing the wankier inspirations being transformed into simple, emotional storytelling.

Our narrator gives us few details about "the boy", but then, we don't need too much more than what we actually see ourselves. What we do see is delivered in the measured pace of rural existence and though there are many Malick-like bits of cerebral looking-up-at-trees and so forth, it's all rooted in character and narrative (albeit a smidgen off the regular beaten path) in addition to the film's extraordinary tone.

The picture is ultimately so gorgeous, so inspiring and often heart-wrenching that this story about a little boy growing up in a little log cabin in Indiana in 1817 is compulsively watchable.

We learn from our narrator that the lad's name is Abe (Braydon Denney) and that he'll eventually leave home at the age of 21. It wouldn't take an Albert Einstein to figure out we're in on the childhood of Honest Abe Lincoln himself, but I suspect if I hadn't known before going in that this is whom/what the picture was dealing with, I'd like to think I'd have potentially been watching the story of a young boy, any young boy and his deep, undying love for his mother.

I will say, though, that the images and events rendered by Edwards and his cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd, all underscored by a gorgeous soundtrack composed by Hunan Townshend, are ultimately so potent that I did indeed file away my knowledge that we were following the young boy who eventually became one of the great presidents of the United States of America. What's kind of cool about this is that we're left with an evocative portrait of pioneer life that gives us a sense of both the hardships and joys of working the land and being inextricably linked to it.

The narrative of Abe's younger years is presented in a series of impressions of days and nights that proceed over the course of time and we're moved forward by some of the most spectacular jump cuts rendered in any film in recent memory. Though some cuts are clearly of the breathtaking variety, many seem so perfectly fluid and in fact seem as gentle as required, when required. We get impressions of children at play and at work, but we're almost always within Abe's sphere and/or POV. Ultimately, the film focuses upon a simple trinity of characters overwhelming all others populating the frame. The most important relationships involve Abe and his stern father (Jason Clarke) and his truly angelic mother (Diane Kruger).

When Abe raises the ire of his father and gets a stern lecture and/or a painful whipping, it's of course his mother who applies the gentle words to calm Abe and to help him understand and love his father in spite of the punishment. One of the most moving sequences is when Abe's mother tenderly describes the look on her husband's face when he first laid eyes on the boy after birth. She assures him that his father had nothing but adoration in his eyes and that she knew that he would always go to the wall for Abe and protect him with his very life.

We do indeed experience moments of tenderness between Abe and his Dad. We also come to understand that it's Abe's mother who recognizes the boy's special gifts and tries to convince her husband that Abe's not cut out for the rough, brutal hardships of working the land. Dad seems at first to dismiss this out of spite or even jealousy, but as the film progresses, we see that Abe's Dad wants to build fortitude and perseverance in his son.

When Abe's mother is taken ill and dies, Abe's Dad marries anew and Abe's stepmother (Brit Marling) proves to be as angelic, if not even more spiritually connected to the boy. The trinity of Father, Son and Stepmother is also as strong and important as the first one.

In both cases, it is the MOTHER (by blood and by marriage) who is able to outwardly perceive Abe's intelligence and sensitivity, whilst Dad is the hide toughener. One sequence even has a dreamy, ghostly moment when both mothers connect fleetingly and we are infused with an almost spiritual warmth, a glow that carries us and Abe through whatever hardships he continues to face.

And as haunting and sad as many of the impressions Edwards imparts are, we're always tied to the glory and spirit of the natural world and the special love that only a mother and son can have. The film paints a portrait of the formative years of a great man, but what we're often aware of is the potential of greatness in any man who honours God, nature and of course, his mother.


The Better Angels is in platform theatrical release via levelFILM and can be seen in Toronto at the Carlton Cinema. Why this isn't also unspooling at TIFF Bell Lightbox and/or a decent Cineplex screen is beyond me. It's worth seeing as soon as possible, but I suspect its astounding picture and sound will shine ever-beautifully once the film is released on Blu-Ray.