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The Better Angels by Hanan Townshend (Review)

posted Nov 17, 2014, 8:25 PM by Kaya Savas

There’s only one composer that can say that their first feature score was for Terrence Malick, and that composer is Hanan Townshend. There’s also only one composer who can say they’ve scored more than one Terrence Malick film, and that’s Hanan Townshend again. While The Better Angels is only produced by Malick, director A.J. Edwards has borrowed heavily in terms of style from his mentor. One could say that mirroring Malick so closely is what held this film back from its full potential. But you can’t ignore Townshend’s poignant and subtle score to this tone poem about a young Abe Lincoln.

Musically, The Better Angels feels like a stripped down version of To The Wonder. Townshend keeps things small and minimal, with shimmering strings and gentle plucks. Minimal brass and woodwinds are part of the soundscape as well. The score acts more like a symphony than a score, very much like To The Wonder. Ideas and emotions reflect the characters' lives in the music, and it’s not necessarily scoring what’s onscreen. Instead the music is existing on a parallel plane of reflection. Townshend also has to work between the source music used. Like Malick’s films, we have tons of symphonic movements hand-picked to be part of the soundtrack. Works from Kalinnikov, Adams, Hovhaness and Bruckner are major parts of the structure. I don’t think the overuse of source music hurts the final impact of what director Edwards is trying to do, but it most certainly drowns out the smaller intimacies of Townshend’s original score. You can definitely argue that the juxtaposition of Townshend’s intimate score and the lushness of the source music work together, but for me I never found a synthesis that spoke to me like it did in Malick’s films To The Wonder and Tree Of Life. On its own though, Townshend’s score is extremely noteworthy even if all we have are 23-minutes of it. As small as the score is, it’s constantly moving, opening, exposing more. Track titles like “Growth”, “Emergence”, “Blossoming”, and “Seasons” all signify progression. This growth and progression definitely resonates with the listener, and I found it to be a very profound listen for what it was.

The Better Angels isn’t so much a flawed score as it is a flawed compilation. Townshend's score doesn’t work well in terms of emotional resonance when it’s part of the entire soundtrack from start to finish. But if you isolate his original pieces on their own, a new light suddenly appears. You finally find the heart of the music and the score itself. It’s a simple, poignant and intimate stroke of music. It manages to echo its themes of growth and progression very well, and it does resonate on the listener. The Better Angels is a quiet and gentle reflection of youth that is worth taking.