The Louisiana-shot Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is, as you have likely already heard, a beautifully captured film about a doomed romance – a tale of two young lovers separated by the choices they made and their diverging culpability. But underneath, it is also a poignant love story about movies in general, and the way they used to look and feel.
Painted with buzzing Southern twilight skies, the warm glow of evening light bulbs, and soft murky shadows, the film is unquestionably the prettiest film this side of Terrence Malick. Though it is not just the look of the film, but the minimalism, mise-en-scène, music, and themes all measure favorably to the acclaimed filmmaker. This same comparison has been made by everyone who has seen the film’s since its premiere earlier this year at Sundance. But is that all there is to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – is it just a Malick knock-off?
The inspiration (some say deliberate replication) for the film is well documented (some more substantial than others): Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Thieves Like Us (1974) - and - the previously mentioned Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). “Copying” or not, the film truly is gorgeous and there is absolutely no fault in that.
It is noteworthy that all these films were made in the 1970s, the heyday of auteur filmmaking in the United States. By coincidence or design, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is set in this same decade. The film truly transports the viewer to that place in time and the feel is intoxicating, a feat rarely accomplished so effectively. (The best instance of this is Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show – made in 1971, but looks and feels so much like a ’50’s film, the decade in which its set).
At first glance, the film’s story sounds riveting and action-packed: the tale of Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife, Ruth (Rooney Mara), and the daughter he has never met. Things are complicated further when Bob is led to believe that she has moved on with another man, a local sheriff (Ben Foster) who was shot while arresting them years before.
But crime and action are not necessarily the case with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Sure, there are shots fired at the beginning, sprinkled throughout, and again at the end, but the methodically-paced, minimalist film focuses largely on the in-between. The audience is not given much background info nor do we see the robbery that led to the opening shootout or even Bob’s escape from prison. Rather, what writer-director David Lowery is interested in showing is how these characters deal with the consequences of those fateful actions and how it changes them.
The film plays like contrasting dreams – both fantasy and nightmare. The flashbacks are hazy and poetic as we see the two young lovers in the throes of passion and excitement, but quickly, the reality of the present seeps in with stark contrast. It has been almost five years since Bob went away to prison, and Ruth is now settled and far more rational than Bob - though she is conflicted and still loves him. Focused solely on their daughter, Ruth is burdened with a sense of impending dread because she knows Bob is coming back to them, and in doing so, all the problems he will bring with him.
Several times in the film, Bob tells, with a Cheshire grin, these fantastical tales (about how he escaped or his old robberies) that you know are just bullshit, but you cannot help but to be taken in by them. With this, it becomes clear that Bob is a romantic with a vivid imagination – that is probably how he got into the robbery business in the first place. Prison likely only enhanced it, and now that he is out, his heart and mind are set on reuniting with his family and running away together to live happily ever after. He really believes it will happen - and because he is so convinced, right or wrong, the audience is too. The only question that looms is will Ruth feel the same way.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is anchored by three (actually, four) remarkable performances. Affleck, who has mastered the shifty, cocky, yet soft-spoken anti-hero with films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Killer Inside Me, mumbles and stares (in a good way) through another terrific and reserved performance. Like the film may do for some, it is clear that he has the potential to rub people the wrong way – he just does not care.
Alongside him, the waifish, but resilient Mara continues her rise through the ranks of Hollywood with another commanding performance. But it is a sweet and strong, yet understated turn from a mutton-chopped, mustachioed Foster that is the real revelation here (though if you have followed his thoroughly under-appreciated career, you should not be surprised by his excellent turn here). Throw in a solid, tough appearance by Keith Carradine and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has one of the finest small ensembles of the year.
Writer-director Lowery has spent the last few years as a highly respected indie film editor and writer – and it shows. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is fantastically constructed and superbly captured (cinematography by Bradford Young). Spoken in whispers, the film is quiet and methodical – almost like the audience is eavesdropping in on these people’s private lives and intimate conversations. With a melancholy feel, the film also takes full advantage of its ever-present, rhythmic and mournful score by Daniel Hart. With all this together, the film really does harken back to those acclaimed films of the 1970s that it was inspired by - back long before studios became far too obsessed with special effects, merchandising, and franchises and less concerned about story, characters, and the craft of filmmaking.
Also, just so you know (if you are insatiably curious like I was), the film’s title – though wonderfully poetic and intriguing – has no relation to the film. According to Affleck, the title is simply the director’s misquotation of a song’s lyrics and has no actual meaning, he just liked the way it sounded.
* * * * out of 5 stars
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints opens Friday, September 20 at Chalmette Movies at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. daily.
So come out and support Chalmette Movies (8700 W. Judge Perez Dr.) by catching this new film, so that the theater can continue bringing interesting films like these to the New Orleans-area. Also, visit the theater’s website for more information, directions, showtimes, and ticket prices.
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