Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – Review

Review: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a beautifully atmospheric character drama/romance. The film is about two young lovers Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie who engage in criminal activities. The police surround them and Ruth shoots one of the officers, Patrick Wheeler, during their apprehension. However, Bob takes all the blame and goes to prison, leaving Ruth to raise their child alone, but Bob promises to come back for them. A few years pass, Bob has escaped from prison and is making his way back towards the small town in Texas where Ruth has remained. Meanwhile, Patrick has developed a friendship with Ruth (that is more than that for him) and he is also tasked with capturing Bob should he try to make contact with Ruth.

At face value, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints easily could have become just another love-triangle drama, prevalent in young adult literature and cinema, but writer-director David Lowery does not lean upon any of the genre troupes and trapping. Quite the opposite – Lowery seems more interested in saying something more profound about love through the pain his characters experience. Ruth and Bob never waver in their love for each other, regardless of what society may think or what is best for them and their daughter. Their love exists on a much deeper level than cinema (that has become increasingly superficial) usually allows for – their love feels almost spiritual in their devotion to each other. Bob returning to Ruth is not just an arduous journey evading capture, but a journey to make his soul whole again. He does not care about the consequences; he just knows he needs to be with his family. For Ruth, the feelings are the same, but she is more sensible. She knows that Bob is doomed if he does come back for her.

However, maybe the most interesting character is Patrick. He is in love with Ruth, and while it is unclear if he knows that it was her who shot him or not (I think that he does know) it would not change his feelings. What makes him interesting is that he loves her and knows he would be good for her (which translates to the audience, which honestly gets the audience behind him despite the pull between Bob and Ruth), but he also knows that she is completely in love with Bob. He is willing to just settle for only having a part of her (is that to say that having a chance at powerful love, even if it is not fully returned, is worth any consequences?) . What also gets the audience behind Patrick is that he is kind and noble. He feels like the quite, stoic hero that frequently populated classic westerns, while Bob is quirky and shifty. As viewers, we do not fully understand the connection between Ruth and Bob, because to some extent we only see the negatives (exacerbated by Patrick clearly being a better choice for Ruth), while their love exists on a much purer level and is uncomplicated (when modern culture has seemed to overcomplicate love). For them, love is not a matter of convenience or simple attraction but something that completely envelops one’s soul.

Lowery spends most of the film contemplating the effect of this love on his characters. Bob is blind to everything that awaits him if he tries to come back for Ruth, which is likely to end up in his death. Ruth is not living a full life as she waits for a man that she can never be with. And Patrick will probably only find his heart broken. The film takes on a very atmospheric and brooding feel as the dramatic tension grows between these three characters and the audience. Bob is coming back, and when he arrives the audience knows something bad will happen. Thus, Lowery builds this low grumbling anticipation that bubbles just beneath the emotional turmoil that the characters are already experiencing. In this way the tone is fairly dark.

The film also has a very timeless quality, as if it could take place at in any time period (which is why the title card at the beginning only tells the audience that the story takes place in Texas, but not when). The idea of love being this all-consuming entity is itself a timeless concept explored in literature and art throughout history. Lowery does not bring much of anything new to the topic, and the film is probably not as profound or moving as it aspires to be, but by the same token it does have the ambition to explore the emotion on a deeper level, which is more than can be said for many films. And, for those willing to go on the film’s emotional journey, the experience is heartbreaking and dramatically dynamic.

There is an ethereal quality to the film as well, that mixed with its timelessness and high concept ideology leaves it to be compared to the work of Terrence Malick (and the story at face value could be placed side by side with Badlands – though, I think they are very different films). While there are some stylistic similarities, I do not really see this as a just comparison. Malick, if nothing else, obsessively is in search of truth and beauty, while Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is much more about these characters specifically and not about what love means in a general sense. Yes, we can make assumptions about love based on how these characters live their lives consumed by its effects, but Lowery seems to be more interested in the characters and what their emotional turmoil means to them than what their struggles say about love (which is the distinction between this film and the work of Malick). In short, Lowery’s film is not just a continuation of Malick’s work or style; it is its own thing entirely.

Overall, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is either going to play as an emotionally absorbing experience or a slow, dull drama – there does not seem like there will be middle ground. The performances are also brilliant, which is what happens when a director hires wonderful character actors to play the leads. Thus, if nothing else, this film is a worthwhile lesson in strong dramatic acting. But for those whiling to engage the film on an emotional level, it is quite compelling (but again, it probably is not going to teach you something new about love, humanity, or yourself).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David Lowery takes the leap from very indie writer-director to pseudo-indie writer-director (after all, this does star name actors and has a production budget and quality equal to that of theatrically distributed films) with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. He has shown himself to be a great talent with the film, as he has an eye from powerful aesthetics and has directed very strong performances from his actors. I do look forward to his future work.

As said above in the review, the film has a very atmospheric feel, to which Daniel Hart’s score plays a big role. Bradford Young’s cinematography is quite good. Visually, the film seems to only use natural lighting sources, which gives it a very natural feel, fitting with the overall tone. His photography is often very beautiful as well. Helped additionally by Jade Healy’s production design, the overall look forwards the thematic feeling of timelessness. The small town in Texas seems like it was forgotten in time, as if it forever will stay the same (it a state of decrepit shambles) regardless of the advancement of society around it.

In terms of performances, there may not be a better acted film than Ain’t Them Bodies Saints so far this year. The performances are powerful, yet subtle and restrained. These characters feel like real people, put upon by hard times and emotional struggles. Nate Parker is very good in a small supporting role. Keith Carradine plays Skerritt, the man who raised Ruth and Bob and whose son was killed during their arrest by the police. He plays a man bitter with regret, unable to move past his loss. The viewer can feel the pain in his eyes. Ben Foster is brilliant as Patrick. He is gentle and kind, yet stalwart. He very much reminds me of a character out of classic westerns, which fits this film very well – a man out of time. Casey Affleck is really the perfect fit for characters such as Bob – weird, slimy but capable of deep emotional feeling. He can play an anti-hero like no other. Rooney Mara may have the most difficult role in the film as Ruth. While she is devoted to Bob, she is also torn by her understanding that she also must look out for her daughter’s best interests. She is being ripped apart inside – both terrified that Bob will come home (and what that means) and almost euphorically hoping that he does. And on top of all this, she has to keep it all bottled up inside. It is fabulous work.

Summary & score: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a worthwhile experience for those looking for wonderful performances and a narrative that aspires to interact with its viewer almost purely on an emotional level. 7/10

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