SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | January 26, 2013
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Starring: Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck, Keith Carradine, Charles Baker, Rami Malek, Nate Parker, Heather Kafka, Kentucker Audley, Will Beinbrink, Robert Longstreet, Frank Mosley, Richard Jackson, Eric Steele, David Zellner, Augustine Frizzell, Steve Jimenez
Bob (Casey Affleck) has burned a lot of bridges during his brief career as an outlaw. He is a wanted man for a recent robbery, and Bob finds himself in the midst of a seemingly hopeless shootout with the police. That is when Bob’s pregnant girlfriend Ruth (Rooney Mara), while only trying to protect her life and home, makes a life-altering mistake. Ruth could easily face life in prison for what she has just done, but Bob steps in and voluntarily takes the fall for the love of his life.
Determined to not be separated from his girlfriend and child, Bob has every intention of getting out of prison as quickly as possible. Sure enough, it takes him a few years but he finally does it. Bob commences his long trek back to Texas to be with Ruth once again. The problem is, that is precisely what the police and a motley group of bounty hunters expect him to do.
All the while, Ruth has been raising their child on her own with some financial assistance from a past associate of Bob’s, Skerritt (Keith Carradine). Even Patrick (Ben Foster), the local deputy whose injury put Bob in prison, wants to help Ruth as best he can.
Writer-director David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a cinematic meditation on poor, rural Texas life in the 1970s (though it often feels like the 1920s or 30s). Not to make excuses for him, but it is Bob’s desperate economic situation and intense desire to support Ruth that has driven him to become an outlaw. There is presumably very little work available, so Bob’s only available option is to steal from others. These perceived external pressures at work against Bob are somewhat similar to Kit’s situation in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). Both films also allude to psychological issues at play within the minds of their male antiheroes; the men are blindly obsessed with their girlfriends, to disastrous proportions.
But Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is not just about obsession; it is also about the deteriorating effects of guilt and secrets on one’s soul. Unlike Bob, Ruth seems to understand the grim reality that she and Bob will never be together again, so Ruth has sentenced herself to a loveless life of chastity to punish herself for the crime for which Bob is doing time. Ruth will never be happy because she knows that Bob has offered up his life for her freedom, while Bob will not be happy until he is reunited with his family. All because of one simple mistake — for which nobody died — Ruth and Bob are destined to be unhappy for the rest of their lives.
Like that of an early Malick film (Badlands, Days of Heaven), cinematographer Bradford Young showcases iconic rural landscapes in transcendent magic hour photography. Lowery’s film is obsessed with the textures and degradation of rusting metal, peeling paint and splitting wood; everyone and everything is covered with a layer of dirt. The police appear to possess the only new vehicles and clothing, everything else seems to have been used well past its prime.
I know it is only January, but I suspect that the masterfully subdued performances by Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Casey Affleck will be some of my favorite performances of 2013. It is the quiet naturalism on behalf of these actors that turns Ain’t Them Bodies Saints into something that is truly believable. There is absolutely no dramatic showboating, this beautiful entry into the world of slow cinema is purely an exercise in subtlety and realism.