“The Better Angels” is intentionally cryptic. After a quote from Abraham Lincoln pops up on the screen, the camera shows the marble steps and columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Then an unseen narrator asks rhetorically if we want to hear about “him.” You can guess who “he” is, though the film never addresses Lincoln by name. Here, he’s just a little boy, living in the backwoods of Indiana.
Unfortunately the namelessness is a gimmick that hints at a larger problem in a movie that’s visually stunning and often poetic, but also leaves too much unsaid.
It begins in 1817, the year Lincoln turned eight. Through that narrator — Lincoln’s cousin — and black-and-white images of wilderness and day-to-day life, we get a somewhat impressionistic understanding of the 16th president’s upbringing. His father (played by Jason Clarke) was the strong, silent type, always chopping wood and looking stern. Lincoln was closer to his mother (Brit Marling). In nearly every scene, she’s surrounded by light, all beatific smiles and far-off gazes. She picks flowers, cradles a baby bird and strokes her son’s hair while lovingly surveying him. She dies early in the movie, of milk poisoning, but Lincoln’s father finds another bride, a widow played by Diane Kruger. And she is just as perfectly angelic as her predecessor.
The movie is composed mainly of snippets of hard labor and lighthearted play interspersed with landscape shots, and through it all we get lyrical context from Lincoln’s cousin. The slow pace, dreamy drawling narrator and focus on nature are all hallmarks of auteur Terrence Malick, and as it turns out writer-director A.J. Edwards is a Malick protege. They worked together on “To the Wonder” and “The Tree of Life,” and Malick is one of this film’s producers. Meanwhile, the music, which is lovely and evocative, was done by Hanan Townshend, another Malick collaborator.
The approach works for this story. Through the languorous unfolding of scenes we get a sense of the difficult life but also the fun to be had growing up in a log cabin in the woods. Lincoln and his cousin play hide-and-seek in tall grass when they aren’t helping build fences. There are only a couple hints of Lincoln’s important future: At one point, he stumbles upon a man leading a line of slaves, shackled in chains. Later, a teacher remarks to Lincoln’s stepmother how incredibly honest the boy is.
The child is played by first-time actor Braydon Denney, who does a tremendous job with the role of a quiet loner who would much rather be reading books than hoeing tracts of land.
The young boy comes across as closed-off, inscrutable even, much like the movie itself. And just as those around Lincoln grow frustrated by his obscurity, so may audiences watching “The Better Angels.”
★ ★ ½
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief, troubling images. 94 minutes.