January 20, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)
August 16, 2013
United States (English)
Written and Directed by David Lowery
Ain't The Bodies Saints is a story of lovers torn apart by the law to pay for their crimes. It's carefully photographed and acted, but wavers in its commitment and shakes from its style.
The opening title card to David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints simply remarks, "This was in Texas." We first see Ruth and Bob (played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) confront in a field. She's fleeing. He's begging for her to stay. This opening scene is one of many fleeting memories that the newlyweds have together before their apparent crime spree comes to an anticlimactic end. The two are escorted out of the country house they were hiding in during a shootout. Bob leans into Ruth and seems to whisper something in her ear. They can't embrace because they are both handcuffed. The police rip them apart. What was supposed to be one road down life together is split into two and, without giving too much away, they spend the vast majority of the film apart after Bob is sent to prison. Ain't The Bodies Saints is a Bonnie & Clyde story that begins where Arthur Penn's classic ends. They are young, in love, but stopped by the law earlier to prevent an inevitable tragedy. What follows led me to consider what is ultimately more tragic, dying together or living apart? Years pass and Bob learns he's the father of a Ruth's daughter, this is the catalyst for his prison escape as he yearns to reconnect and make up for lost time.
Many of us thought of Terrence Malick when we first the trailer for Ain't Them Bodies Saints, namely the poetic fiction he's been gradually weaving over the years. A small-town setting in a bygone decade, stunning photography hovering through the wilderness of backyards, shots of wheat fields in the wind and a prominent voice-over courtesy of Affleck's Bob. Forget Bonnie & Clyde, how about Badlands, Malick's directorial debut that follows a young couple who leave home and go on a killing spree? What was gathered for the 90-second preview does look, feel, sound Malickian (if you will), but I found myself thinking of Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, largely due to Casey Affleck's involvement. I felt Affleck gave one of the best performances of that year for his turn as Ford. In Ain't Them Bodies Saints he seems to have fallen back into that same mode. The novelty of the performance wore mightily thin for me. Rooney Mara, who has risen like a Hollywood angel since her supporting performance in The Social Network, delivers yet another impressive
performance. Portraying motherhood is all-new territory for her and you can see that she's no longer thinking of just herself. Scenes between Ruth and her daughter portray how lost innocence is easily rekindled and that kept lies can be forgiven given time.
Ben Foster (previously seen in The Messenger and 3:10 to Yuma) plays police officer Patrick Wheeler. He was directly involved in the stand-off that landed Bob in prison and offers the now single mother and daughter his protective care. Wheeler is a timid yet earnest man and Foster fulfills the genuine and considerate role like it's second nature. It's easy to call it one of my favorite performances of the year, but how much of that is because he's such an upright character? Keith Carradine, Rami Malek, Nate Parker and Charles Baker all lend their fitting demeanors to the period piece. There's a lot of characters coming in and out of this film's swinging doors to keep track of.
The film was well-received at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year where it was in competition for the Grand Jury Prize and won best cinematography. Director of photography Bradford Young does lend a stark beauty to all the exterior scenes. The interiors appear naturally lit with an admirable set design to submerge us in the era. This is an incredibly dark film in terms of it's lighting, this too feels true to its setting at the cost of the audience not always being able to discern what's onscreen. The clapping soundtrack fits but overstays its welcome and even took away the suspense on one occasion by starting early in a scene following Bob as he navigates the woods at night. From the film's opening it's evident Lowery and Young have a aesthetic agenda and I admired the artistry of the individual scenes. However, when taken as a whole the story feels like it has yet to make up its mind. You could argue that this is because one of our lead characters has yet to make up their mind, but something feels off by the time the Ain't Them Bodies Saints card (to bookend "This was in Texas") appears onscreen. Reportedly the film has received some additional cutting since Sundance, which is not uncommon, but begs the question as to how focused the film and it's makers ultimately were.
"Every day I wake up thinking today's the day I'm going to see you. One of those days it will be so. And we can ride off somewhere, somewhere far away."
- Bob Muldoon
CONTENT: some violence and language