AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS – The Sundance Review
Imagine if Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic Badlands ended not with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek’s characters executed and imprisoned, respectively, but instead with him imprisoned and her not only walking free but pregnant with his child. That’s basically the starting point for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the first feature from longtime shorts director David Lowery, which premiered at this year’s Sundance. And the Malick comparison isn’t made just because of the overlapping subject matter – Lowery clearly takes visual cues from the master. This is a gorgeous-looking, accomplished debut.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play Ruth and Bob, a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style duo of criminals/lovers. When they’re cornered by the law, Ruth shoots an officer, and Bob takes all the blame in order to protect her. He goes to jail, while she walks free. Five years later, Ruth is living a quiet life with their daughter, but their peace is threatened, both by Bob breaking out and by the romantic advances of Patrick (Ben Foster), the police officer whom Ruth shot. Bob sets out for a reunion with old enemies on his trail, while Ruth must figure out what she’s going to do when he comes for her.
Although the movie is bookended with some gruesome violence, it’s much more about trying to live life than it is about crime or even romance. All of the characters are trying to lead normal existences, in spite of past traumas both inflicted and suffered. It’s not just Ruth and Bob who are on such a journey, either. There’s “Sweetie” (Nate Parker) an old accomplice of Bob’s who now runs a bar, and endangers his new livelihood by helping Bob out. There’s Skerritt (Keith Carradine), Bob’s father, who wants more than anything else to keep the peace and protect his granddaughter, and is even willing to sacrifice Bob to do it. Even though Patrick doesn’t know that Ruth is the one who shot him, she’s still linked to his near-death, and yet he’s attracted to her anyway.
The actors are one half of what holds this movie together. Everyone is terrifically understated yet highly emotional at the same time. Mara finally demonstrates why she’s one of the new “it” girls in the industry (I saw nothing particularly special about her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo performance), while Affleck does his best work since The Killer Inside Me. Carradine is typically great, holding years’ worth of weariness in his eyes convincingly. Foster, though, might be the most interesting actor in the film. The dissonance in his growing love for Ruth and her daughter generates a sympathetic turmoil inside him. He’s a fundamentally decent and likable man.
The other half of what makes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints great is the cinematography. Bradford Young, the man behind the camera for some of the best-looking low budget films of the past few years, is the one responsible. Again, it’s Malick-esque. Every scene looks like it was shot at magic hour, with gentle, naturalistic light filling up each frame. The world of low-income, mid-century Texas feels real and lived-in.
The movie does such a good job of creating a gentle atmosphere that the fact that it culminates in a violent climax is actually a disappointment. When gunshots are flying back and forth, it feels like a betrayal of the tone that’s been established. While it does tie into the theme that some past actions have inescapable consequences, the film tries to use the violence to generate excitement, which doesn’t feel appropriate at all. But that’s a hiccup at the end of a mostly smooth run. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a very good movie, one that makes me excited to see what David Lowery does next.