As he stood on stage to introduce Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival, Waukesha native David Lowery offered a brief explanation of the film’s cryptic title. He explained that the title isn’t a spoken line of dialogue nor does it relate to the film’s plot whatsoever. Rather, the title serves a more lyrical purpose as it derives from Lowery’s recollection of a folk song he once heard. This makes sense as he revealed his unconventional approach of constructing a film as a folk song itself by repeating familiar archetypes and narrative elements, much like a folk musician would repeat musical chords. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints mostly succeeds by the addition of poetic beauty to its simplistic narrative shell.
The film opens with outlaw couple Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) in an open field in Texas. Ruth quietly reveals to Bob that she’s pregnant, which only delights the love-struck outlaw. As we’re briefly introduced to these characters, the narrative jumps forward to the end of their criminal mischief during a climactic shootout with the police at an abandoned house. Bob surrenders himself and takes blame for injuring a police officer (Ben Foster), even though it was actually Ruth who fired the gun. Bob is sent off to prison where he diligently writes letters to Ruth to not only pass the time but also to communicate with the woman he loves and the mother of his child. As Ruth reluctantly continues on with her life after she gives birth and moves into her own home, Bob escapes from prison to be with her despite facing threatening roadblocks along the way.
Casey Affleck’s understated performance as Bob is dominantly driven by his eagerness and subtle charm. Affleck’s unique, soft twang narrates the letters Bob writes to Ruth throughout the film with ease as the simplistic narrative moves forward. There are moments scattered throughout though that Affleck’s twang is certainly flawed in its diction but this one flaw is easy to pass by without claiming it as an alarming annoyance. Despite giving a vigorous and ferocious performance in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara brings out a different side to her as Ruth. Mara portrays Ruth with a sense of gracious warmth, despite the character having her own set of internal flaws and concerns that ultimately keep her grounded alongside her young daughter. What’s interesting the most is that Affleck and Mara are rarely seen on screen together, but yet their persistence and chemistry are beautifully captured.
David Lowery, who previously wrote and directed the impeccable short Pioneer and the surprising feature St. Nick, proves with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints that he is a vastly talented writer and filmmaker. While watching the film slowly evolve into intensity, it’s quite obvious that he emulated notable films of Terrence Malick, most notably Malick’s 1972 film Badlands, and Robert Altman. Lowery succeeded in his attempt to construct Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in a more lyrical and unconventional approach, even though the plot itself is just the opposite. Every little aspect from the setting of wide Texas landscapes, its rural timeless town, subtle musical score, props, lighting, and Bradford Young’s marvelous cinematography all accumulate to give the film an organic country folk sense, which in turn makes the film feel very much like a folk song with a bit of twang.
Despite its conventional and recycled plot points, the film is most impressive because it still manages to be compelling due to Lowery’s precise attention towards building particular moments with an above average level of intensity and impending reckoning. When it comes to characterization within the narrative, Lowery is the most poetic here even though the characters are familiar archetypes. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is only Lowery’s second feature, which is his largest film yet in terms of budget and overall scope. No matter how large his future films will be, he has the rest of his promising career to continuously prove that his talent will always be much larger than the budgets of his films.
Final Rating: 8/10