Ain't Them Bodies Saints is another Sundance special, a western without steer and horses, campfires, a noose, whiskey, or wild Indians, which by now one can do very well without. It is instead a meditative, moody, ill-starred romance by way of Texas, where the only real piece of machinery that separates its citizens from the primeval is not the television or computer but the gun or rifle. In the opening sequence, two young men gone bad are cornered by policemen, who arrive in squad cars. During the shootout that ensues, one dies and the other, whose wife fires a fateful shot, goes to prison.
Flashback to The Marriage of Maria Braun and other films in which someone goes to prison for the sake of someone else. In matters concerning the warmer human heart, when chivalry is summoned, it is readily forthcoming, regardless of right and wrong. Never will the punished innocent complain to the unpunished guilty. They are both above all that because a romance is, generally speaking, the elusive stairway to heaven. And besides, Ruth (Rooney Mara) is pregnant. But more to the point, Bob (Casey Affleck) is impatient. He is unwilling from the start to serve his full sentence. The film is ultra-heavy on style and purposely thin on plot. And that is precisely what I liked about Ain't Them Bodies Saint. Unlike other films with western settings in which outlaws buck horns with the authorities, it is long on telling, not on what is told.
I never really thought of myself as the type. But I got into this movie, and realized, while watching, that such films were more needed than not. That is to say, films that take chances with the way in which they relate their stories. According to Film Comment, the movie "is less concerned with narrative and character than it is with tone and affect." My sentiments exactly. I would go further and suggest that it is formalistic, unfettered and unstifled by the constraints of content. As a Lone Star story, set a while back, there are less electronics. The chief focus is on love letters, voice-over, the introduction of a law-abiding, guitar-strumming second man, an original soundtrack, and the steep odds stacked against a luckless family of three. If it manages to survive, much less thrive, a miracle will have taken place. Especially with a nosy neighbor sitting on the porch next door who sleeps with an eye open.
I picked up the dvd of Ain't Them Bodies Saints at the local Wal-Mart. I was curious to see what current western had found an audience among the mainstream. I was surprised to learn that it was a Sundance award-winner for best cinematography. Strangely, I did not consider its visual aspect to be the film's strongest attribute. To me what stood out most was the way in which the actors spoke and occasionally moved. To my mind, the entirety was realistic enough, yet also dreamy, understated, and a bit slow, with less volume. I would recommend this film to romance enthusiasts, but with the caveat that it is still, after all is said and done, a western. It employs gunfire and superfluous machoism, mostly verbal, elements shared by other genres not in the least bit romantic.