A few weeks before the start of the film festival, Milwaukee Film announced the addition of David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" as part of the Spotlight Presentations lineup. The screening took place on Wednesday, Oct. 9 at the Oriental Theatre from 6:30-8:30 p.m. A Q&A with writer/director David Lowery followed the screening.
"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is the tale of Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck- "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford", "The Killer Inside Me") and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara- "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", "Side Effects"), two outlaws who struggle to reunite after Bob takes pregnant Ruth's prison sentence. Before the screening, Waukesha native David Lowery introduced the film with an explanation of the title stating it came from misheard lyrics to a folk song. He added,
I wanted to put the audience in a state of mind to listen to a song, not watch a movie.
Whether or not audience members picked up on this within the title, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" successfully functions as a folk song in everything from the plot to the setting to the general tone of the film. The soundtrack is subtle enough that it blends into the woodwork of the film, while significantly contributing to the storytelling and tone. Banjo, guitar, violins, pulsing claps, even the sound of water boiling all contribute to adding a timelessness to the Texan backdrop and creating tension without dialogue. Much of the plot is what one might expect in an old folk song.
We did what we did and that is what we are.
Beyond the subtle yet essential soundtrack, the style of the film is unlike any other and contributes to reading "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" like a folk song. Every little thing in the shots from props to lighting create a timeless old countryside feeling. Something as simple as a neighbor smoking a pipe on the porch to worn wood, rays of streaking sunlight, and wide Texan landscapes are constant elements that contribute to this tone and feeling. Lowery used no modern lighting while filming, and often uses a yellow tint, establishing a constant style to the film that immerses the viewer into the scene.
I used to be the devil and now I'm just a man.
One of the great things about "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is how it manages to be so simple, yet compelling. The plot itself is quite basic, where two separated lovers must defy opposition to be together, and yet there is still a great deal of tension and suspense keeping the audience hooked. One of many particularly effective methods in creating this suspense is by pairing drastically different paced scenes, creating a restlessness in the audience and making a potentially dull scene one that puts you on the edge of your seat. The many wide shots and empty moments in the film create a silent, spatial tension adding to the tone of the film and connection with the longing the two characters feel for each other. The use of letters is consistently present during the film and, though they are simple love letters for the most part, they are a prime example of the compelling simplicity of the film. Casey Affleck narrates many of the letters with a raspy drawl and longing that draws in viewers, making them hang on every word. These letters materialize Bob and Ruth's relationship and feelings during their separation, establishing a bond that the viewer rarely sees lived out on screen.
He's not coming back for me if that's what you're thinking.
Lowery stated in the Q&A that he began writing the screenplay with the intention of using well-worn character archetypes and playing with them as the most basic building blocks of the script. He does so masterfully as we see classic American outlaws and the straight-laced sheriff (Ben Foster- "3:10 to Yuma", "Alpha Dog") after the height of their time in the line of action and law-breaking. These characters, while classic and well-worn, still have an originality because of this focus on life after crime and their mission to reunite as a family with their daughter Sylvie, who Bob has yet to meet. Lowery stated that he had a short list of actors in mind for the film and that they all agreed to join the project, which is a testament to his sense for casting as Mara, Affleck, and Foster slip into their roles perfectly. Mara and Affleck in particular have such incredible chemistry that Lowery added a scene with the two of them together because one just wants to see more of them.
"Ain't Them Bodies Saints", while using recycled character archetypes, creates a unique, compelling story in organic settings that draws the audience into timeless Texan scenes. Lowery skillfully creates a film reminiscent of an old folk song with characters that develop and come alive in short spans of time. The second of Lowery's feature films, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is a glimpse of what excellent work we can expect from the Wisconsin native.
I write the way I wish I could speak. ~Lowery