Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
A folk romantic crime saga by the emerging indie Texan filmmaker, David Lowery on the footsteps of Terence Mallick tradition.
David Lowery is an emerging American filmmaker whose work in the short films has already been multi-awarded. He also has worked as film editor in some recent independent films such as Upstream Color (2013) and Sun Don’t Shine (2012). Four years after his directorial debut, St. Nick (2009), he returns with his sophomore feature-length film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which has already gained the critical attention. The film was supported by this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the Cinematography Award in the U.S. Dramatic Category. The film was also selected to compete in La Semaine Internationale de la Critique at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints opens with an introductory card that reads “This Was in Texas,” and follows Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), an impassioned young outlaw couple which live in the 1970s somewhere in Texas. During a gunfight with the police, after a robbery, Ruth shoots and injures severely Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), a young policeman. Bob claims responsibility, since Ruth is pregnant, and he gets imprisoned. As time goes by, Bob communicates with his beloved only via mail and he learns everything about their daughter. Wheeler, who in the meantime had recovered, befriends Ruth and tries to flirt with her. Four years after the initial event, Bob escapes from prison with one sole purpose, to reunite with his wife and the daughter who has never met. However the air in his little town has changed and it could be dangerous for him.
David Lowery seems totally dedicated to transform a typical folk crime melodrama such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to a poetic visually impressive homage to New Hollywood. There are of course many references to well-known films of that era, and he has already admitted that his intention as a filmmaker was to follow the paths of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and of course Terrence Mallick’s Badlands. It is quite interesting and admirable that Lowery doesn’t hide his influences and as being a fellow Texan like Mallick he knows and loves his homeland. For that reason the similarities are rather striking. The selection of the landscapes where the action is set, the vague camera movement in the Texas Hill Country, and of course the catalytic presence of Magic Hour’s light in any crucial scene of the film.
The austerity in Lowery’s technique works most of the times exquisitely smooth since it is hard to find an unsuited or superfluous scene in this crime romantic saga. Everything is extremely precise and follows the unwritten rules of the Americana genre where minimalism and slow time are the main strains. His heroes move, feel, talk and breathe as they were born there. Both performances by Casey Affleck, who has already been exposed in a similar setting in The Assassination of Jesse James, and Rooney Mara are tremendously accurate. Ben Foster’s western approach of his role completes that odd threesome. For that reason the presence of Keith Carradine, in a patriarchic figure, blends greatly with the whole film and completes the references towards Robert Altman’s work.
Theoretically, Lowery seems that has done an elegiac sensible film by the book but this is not always the way to create a memorable filmic experience. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints should and must be a highly sentimental film. By reading the script, that he himself has written, the story is extremely poignant and quite powerful that could break anyone’s heart. Unfortunately the director’s foresaid advantage becomes at the same time his main disadvantage. His dedication to move as elliptical as possible decreased the real presence of the feelings. The director Lowery overpowered the screenwriter Lowery. In his struggle to strip off his narration in the most minimalistic way he lost the main reason of his story, the drama. Bradford Young’s exceptional auburn-colored cinematography conquers everything so even the sentimental part is trapped in its image and cannot be transmitted to the viewer. The heroes show their emotions, but these are just depicted or are just being implied and cannot be reflected back to the audience. So in the end Lowery delivers a picture that was created frame by frame with the highest impressionistic precision but it remains lifeless since he didn’t let his image breathe. That is the main difference between a true auteur and his admirer.
There is no doubt that David Lowery is a talented director that gains our attention but he doesn’t seem now mature enough artistically. He is still working nostalgically by trying to approach his favorite directors and he hasn’t yet produced something organically new. The creativity should win the retro rigidness in order to evolve his style. Lowery once said that he wanted Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to have the quality of an old folk song, something Bob Dylan could cover. He forgot that folk music, by nature, doesn’t need any strict rules or forms, and that just flows through the lives of her heroes.