Felix Mendelssohn, the 19th-century German Romantic composer, published volumes of solo piano pieces titled “Songs Without Words.” Writer-director A.J. Edwards’ “The Better Angels,” a biopic about Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood in the Indiana wilderness, is a film with few words.
But not a silent film. In addition to occasional dialogue and narration, the movie’s sounds comprise rushing water, a crackling fireplace, animals and wind moving through trees. There’s also Hanan Townsend’s somber, Gustav Mahler-esque classical music score.
“The Better Angels” is cinema as visual poetry. Cameras gaze at water gliding over smooth rocks and trees that tower into the sky. They also watch the contemplative child who’ll grow up to become the nation’s 16th president.
In tone and style, “The Better Angels” has many of characteristics typical of a Terrence Malick project. Edwards is a protégé of Malick, the filmmaker whose cinematic meditations include “Days of Heaven,” “The New World” and “The Tree of Life.”
Edwards, having worked as co-editor of “The New World” and second-unit director and co-editor for “The Tree of Life,” also is Malick collaborator. And because Malick served as producer for “The Better Angels” and originated the film’s concept, his touch is all over it. Filmgoers who lose patience with Malick’s work likely will do the same with Edwards’ “The Better Angels.”
In the Indiana woods in 1817, nature serves as a kind of church for the intellectually precocious young Lincoln and his illiterate mother, Nancy. The 8-year-old Lincoln, despite being raised in a harsh culture of subsistence farming and hunting, declines to ever kill again after he shoots a wild turkey.
Although Lincoln is just a child, his father makes him work hard in the fields. Tom Lincoln (Jason Clarke) is an unforgiving man who won’t hesitate to administer a whipping.
First-time actor Braydon Denney plays Abe. Containing little dialogue, Denney’s performance as the thoughtful, brooding boy is largely wordless and below the surface.
Little Abe is a question mark. How does such an extraordinary man arise from this hardscrabble upbringing? “The Better Angels” offers clues. It’s a guess, but maybe Abe’s hunger for books and knowledge is a symptom of his quest for something even greater — wisdom.
While the film shows Abe’s father as uncompromising, even cruel, the child receives absolute love and tenderness from his mother. Brit Marling, as Abe’s soon-to-die biological mother, Nancy, and Diane Kruger, as his stepmother, Sarah, both portray kind, gentle spirits in Abe’s life. Of course, they are his better angels.
Sarah, like Nancy before her, recognizes Abe’s gifts. She tells her hard-minded husband that Abe’s intelligence should be cultivated at a school 25 miles away. Farfetched though the proposal is, Tom Lincoln allows it.
Drawing its script meticulously from multiple historical sources, “The Better Angels” uses its voiceover narration sparely to great effect. The voiceover is based entirely on “The Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln” and its 1890 interview with Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks. “I knowed they kill him,” Hanks says. “I been waiting for it.”
Like the film, the narration, spoken by Kentucky native Hays Blankenship, is simply, starkly beautiful.