Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Written & Directed
Ain't Them Bodies Saints from writer-director David Lowery is a slow paced, beautifully filmed and told story of an outlaw wanting to get back to his lover and the child he has yet to hold in his arms. A film that rolls through the Texas Hill Country with the lush, methodical storytelling and filmmaking of Terrence Malick's earlier films and the violence of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. There are no big reveals or huge twists in this romantic thriller, but just a well made feature film. Lowery also worked as an editor on Shane Carruth's intoxicating Upstream Color and shows a wonderful eye at storytelling and directing. The film also contains some of the best acting that has been in film this year, especially a quiet, moving turn from Ben Foster. Ain't Them Bodies Saints is definitely worth your time if you want something completely different from the usual Hollywood entertainment.
The film has the feel of a fairy tale, almost, but also is soaked in lush cinematography and an atmosphere of love and loss. Taking place in the 1970s, we see Texas outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), his partner Freddy (Kentucker Audley) and his girlfriend Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) at the end of their crime spree. Defending themselves in an abandon house, they are in the depths of a shootout with the Texas police. Freddy gets shot and killed. Bob and Ruth decide to surrender, but Ruth has shot and wounded one of the police officers, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). Before they give themselves up, Bob takes the blame for everything, including shooting Wheeler. Bob is sent to jail and Ruth is left to have their unborn child and raise it alone.
Bob repeatedly tries to break out of prison and fails continuously. Eventually he frees himself from the constraints of jail and takes on the journey of getting back to his love and the daughter, Sylvie (played by twins Kennadie & Jacklynn Smith), he has never physically laid eyes on. While he was away, Ruth has moved in to a house provided for her by the reserved, but staunch local crime boss Skerritt (Keith Carradine). He is a protector over these two and will not allow any harm to come upon them. One of the beauties of this story is that we never really get much of a history lesson. We know who these characters are, here and now. We know little of why or what Ruth and Bob got in to before the shootout, but we can assume it was bad, of course. We know little of Skerritt's background either, but that is part of the brilliance of Lowery's screenplay. He is aware of telling the story in front of us and given hints at the past, but not dwelling in it. The audience can come up with their own interpretations. This is where your everyday movie audience would find this film frustrating and where I find it to be a celebrated delight.
Bob gets back to the unnamed Texas town where Ruth resides and hides out with an old friend and bartender Sweetie (Nate Parker). When he gets back though, a trio of criminals from out-of-town come looking for Bob. Once again, no reasons are giving for the presence or past of these men, but what tension is created with their arrival. Also, the leader of the three is played by "Breaking Bad" alumni Charles Baker, aka Skinny Pete. They find Bob and an absolutely breathtaking shootout ensues. The cracking and popping of gunfire will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is one of the best shootouts I have seen in a long time and reminded me of the shootouts in Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. Violent, but done with class and truth. Affleck is brilliant as the hardened outlaw. Tough as nails and willing to do anything to get back to his family. However, this just leads Wheeler hotter on the trail of Bob, but he also has other intentions.
Officer Wheeler has slowly, but not forcefully, become attracted to Ruth. He is invited over for dinner and he is charming, awkward and respectful of Ruth and Sylvie. An attraction is obviously there, but is played out with a southern sweetness that just works perfectly. I absolutely loved this scene and it really exemplified how Foster and Mara are performing at a high level. Mara is dainty, but cold. She has witnessed the hardships of life and has raised her daughter all alone. My only probably with her is that her southern accent was a little forced. Not fully believable. Mara is still very good in this role and shows the strengths and vulnerabilities of a woman in need of change and looking for love, old or new. However, Foster really impressed me here. It seems he finally played an adult that expressed a wide range of emotions. It is has if this role is where he moved up in status as one of the better actors working today. Maybe it was the mustache or the fact his southern accent did not feel forced, but he nailed the role of a police officer doing the right thing and fighting the urges of a complicated attraction. He does not know that Ruth was the one that shot him in that shootout with Bob and Freddy.
David Lowery has created an independent masterpiece with his honest writing and smooth, but physical directing. The film is a respectful piece of cinema, that is so similar to Terrence Malick's Texas tale of outlaws on the run Badlands and Arthur Penn's cinema-altering Bonnie and Clyde, but has the distinctiveness that makes it one of a kind. Pacing that slowly builds to a thrilling conclusion and all aspects of the production are in top form. Breathtaking cinematography from Bradford Young and a soothing score by Daniel Hart. Ain't Them Bodies Saints is rich in atmosphere and is brilliant in its depiction of an outlaw in search of his family, but having to fight tooth-and-nail to get there. Absolutely perfect performances from all involved, but Foster really stood out in my opinion. David Lowery, in the business for awhile, is definitely a writer-director to look out for and as proven he has the patience, skill and talent to tell a sophisticated, adult story without catering to audiences assumed expectations. An absolute knockout of a film.
Photo credit by IMDB.