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The Berlinale Blog: The Malick’s men

Terrence Malick is known for elaborate cinematography. It was only a matter of time before the bells and whistles of his high-atmosphere, low-dialogue style bred a stable full of acolytes. Eve Lucas reports.

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The Better Angels

Of the two Berlinale films by Terrence Malick disciples, The Better Angels bears the more obvious rubber stamp of an intensely visual format. Filmed throughout in black and white, it presents Abraham Lincoln’s formative years as a dream-sequence essay. This is a child’s unfinished but observant view rendered in lingering, slightly unfocused long shots of clearings and cabins that alternate with hand-held close-ups for musing faces and alert bodies to create an expressionistic mise-en-scène indebted, like Malick, to silent cinema. If you’re a die-hard Malick fan, (guilty, I’m afraid) you’ll relish the variety of cinematographic syntax that connects the narrative dots between a mother’s early death, a father’s tough love and the unexpected grace of a step-mother’s support. With Malick himself producing, however, the cumulative heft of insert cuts and wide-angle romanticism could prove distracting for some.

Things People Do, directed by Saar Klein, who worked as editor on The Thin Red Line, also submits to opening voiceovers and point of view shots to introduce the dilemma faced by Bill Scanlin (an innately decent Wes Bentley), who’s lost his job, can’t admit it, and is struggling to maintain down payments on a new home and the respect of wife and two boys.  But here an attention-seeking camera is well particularly suited to Scanlin’s predicament as follower and followed: a man chasing success but hunted, and haunted, by the consequences of failure.

Acutely sensitive to his own humiliation and the pervasive arrogance around him, Bill slips by degrees into the role of avenging angel. Klein is a little heavy handed with his metaphors (dogs scavenging in trashcans and ripped apart by the desert coyotes beyond the suburban fence, racks of sunglasses rocked by moral darkness), but this barely detracts from a tale of ambivalent redemption in which local detective Frank (Jason Isaacs) is set up as Bill’s nemesis. Both fallen and guardian angel, he encourages Bill to forget his misdeeds and move on. And as Bill’s son reads his dad a letter apologizing to a teacher for cheating and courting inevitable punishment, it becomes clear that morality and survival are indeed antithetical in post-2008 America – and a society in which truths held to be “self-evident” has passed its sell-by date.

The Better Angels screens Feb 10, 19:00 (Zoo Palast 1), Feb 11, 10:00 (CinemaxX 7), Feb 12, 14:30 (Cubix 9) and Feb 15, 20:00 (International).

Things People Do screens Feb 9, 21.30 (Zoo Palast 1), Feb 10, 12:30 (CinemaxX 7), Feb 11, 21:30 (Filmkunst 66), Feb 14, 20:00 (International) and Feb 15, 19:00 (Zoo Palast 1)