There’s something very familiar about David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The writer-director himself might twitch few ears in recognition, after his most recent work, the largely unheralded duo of Lullaby and St. Nick, but in the bones of his latest, which played as part of Critic’s Week here, is the genetics of familiar art. There is almost certainly a major nod here to Badlands, as well as Thieves Like Us, and more generally speaking, Lowery seems intent on re-exploring the essence of that particular period of outlaw movies.
Saints begins with a shoot-out, involving Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara,) who are subsequently hauled away. Muldoon is arrested, but the pregnant Guthrie is let go, to live in a comfortable house in a small Texan town called Meridian looked after by the excellent Keith Carradine. We’re not furnished with details of the trigger event, until the narrative progresses significantly, being drip-fed tiny morsels that piece together bit by bit, with the script offering far more focus to the central relationship.
There’s certainly something of Malick in the way Lowery frames his story, which isn’t at all a bad thing, given how well the drenched visuals fit the emotional undercurrent of the film. It’s just a shame that Lowery couldn’t match his aesthetic convictions and maturity with a story-telling maturity, as his story is a little twee and there’s a jarring clash between an obviously serious agenda and sentimentality. As an art film, it still works very well, and both Mara and Affleck have enough to work with to offer strong performances, it’s just that the substance doesn’t quite marry up with the style in places.
The joy of the film is in the interplay between characters – the plot is rounded out by Ben Foster’s local cop – and the ambiguity that masks the nature of some of the key relationships, including a trio of bad guys who appear after a time as things roll inevitably towards another flashpoint, bringing just as inevitable action and tragedy. Lowery has made a Western of sorts, with lots of traditional flags, not all of which are dealt with completely successfully, I might add, but there is certainly pleasure in his poetic convictions.
It’s a shame the film wasn’t grittier – not for the want of obligatory violence, but because films like this haven’t been made since Badlands for a reason, and even the most traditional of genres evolve. But for its substance problems, the style is really a beautiful thing – Lowery is clearly enamoured with the Malick method, and his cinematographer – Bradford Young – offers a delirious and beautiful portrait of his vision.
This is certainly another of those gems hidden away in the sidebars of Cannes that deserves to be cherished by a wider audience – and thanks to the talent associated with the project, and the inevitable high profile, that will be the case.
This article was first posted on May 20, 2013