Sometimes, in order to fully appreciate a film’s craft, particularly its cinematography, you need to see it on a large screen. The new melodrama from director/writer David Lowery, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is one of those films.
Despite its clumsy title, which makes it sound more portentous than it really is, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a slow moving, atmospheric tale set in dusty Texas Hill country during the 70’s, although it looks considerably older. Two outlaws, Bob (Casey Affleck) and his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) are bank robbers cornered after a robbery. During a shootout, deadeye Ruth, as she is sometimes called, critically wounds a deputy, but it is Bob who takes the fall for the shooting. After four years in prison, Bob discovers he has a daughter and wants to see her and his wife at any cost, so he breaks out.
“He’s not coming back for me, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Ruth tells the law, but that’s exactly what Bob is doing.
The performances from all four major players, Affleck, Mara, Ben Foster as a local deputy and Keith Carradine as Skerritt, Bob’s adoptive father, are well cast and natural, but its real star is cinematographer Bradford Young whose compositions are so well framed – even the hand held shots – that you eventually become overwhelmed by the visual dreamlike quality of its images more than anything else.
The plot is basic. Once the elements have been established there’s not a great deal more to learn about these people or what they’re doing. Despite the opportunity to explore character, director Lowery appears to be concentrating on creating atmosphere and little else. The overall feel to the film is reminiscent of Terence Mallick’s Days of Heaven mixed with Badlands, a comparison so obvious I’m sure that by this point director Lowery is no doubt tired of hearing it. Twilight cloud formations capture the eye and linger long enough for us to savor the moment, but there are many of them. You get to the point where appreciating the look is all well and good – even another shot of a rusty truck moving along a back country dust road has a poetic beauty to it – but you start yearning for something more. The end result is a film that delivers mood with impressionistic images that you can both admire and praise, but it never fully engages.
The scenes between the major players have a natural, ad-libbed quality. It’s as if Lowery gave each actor an outline of what he wanted, shot it, then printed the rehearsal. The overlapping, often mumbling and inarticulate exchanges ring true, but without the occasional moment of theatrics or even a real sense of drama there’s little to hook on to. “We were jus’ doin’ what you taught us to do,” Ruth tells Skerritt. In the end what you come away with is a muted tale of a sad waste of life that could have broken your heart if only you’d felt more involved.
MPAA Rating: Unrated Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)