Monday, August 26, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints: ON DEMAND REVIEW

AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS - Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, directed by David Lowery (105 min.)

Ain't Them Bodies Saints lends itself to a familiar cinematic tradition of young lovers skirting the law. In the vein of bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, two masterpieces of doomed love, this new feature debut from writer/director David Lowery exists in a world we all know, in a setting we have seen before, and with characters whose motivations have been divulged in countless stories in films past. Maybe this set up is doing a disservice to the film, but I don’t think so. Familiarity is fine if it is done well, and done with performances that outweigh what is expected. That is the strength of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, acting that overshadows genre tropes, beauty in cinematography, and a score and soundtrack that separates the film from its predecessors. It isn’t better than the films which inspired it, but it is different.

The story focuses on two young lovers and outlaws, Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. As the film opens Ruth tells Bob she is pregnant, but there is no time to celebrate. The lovers are cornered in an abandoned country home by the police, and their partner is killed. Ruth fires a shot towards the police and hits Patrick Wheeler, a lawman played with unexpected reserve by Ben Foster, in the shoulder. As the police close in on the home, Bob tells Ruth he will take the blame for the shot and give himself up so that she can have their child free from prison. But he promises her he will escape and return to her no matter what.

Ruth has their child, a daughter, and for four years they live happily in a home given to them by a local property owner, Skerritt (Keith Carradine, in a role you would expect from Sam Shepherd). All the while Bob is writing letters to Ruth, promising his return. He tries and tries to break out of prison until one day, finally, he succeeds. As Bob tries desperately to hide out and inch closer to Ruth and his daughter, another story blossoms between Ruth and Patrick, who has taken a liking to Ruth and the little girl. Foster steals every scene he is in, as Patrick represents a much different, much safer and viable option for Ruth. Does she wait for Bob and escape their comfortable life together with their daughter, or does she stay safe with Patrick?

While there is an undeniable connection between Ruth and Bob, thanks to the rock solid performances from both Mara and Affleck, they spend nearly all the film apart in their own narratives. The longing is palpable, but the plot keeps them away from each other. Affleck seeks the help of his friend, Sweetie (Nate Parker), and he must fight off some villains from his past who are out for blood, while Ruth struggles with her decision. This is the difference between Ain't Them Bodies Saints and the films that inspired it. The closest comparison is Terrence Malick’s masterful feature debut, Badlands, as Lowery’s camera captures serene sunsets and beautiful Texas landscapes. The film doesn’t blatantly steal from Malick’s work as it is much more immediate and engaging than dreamy and aloof, but the inspiration is clear.

There is something romantic about the small Texas towns in a film like this. Where everyone knows everyone else, where the spatial landscapes counterbalance the directness and immediate emotions of the characters. There isn’t a new story in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, but there is a wonderfully elegiac film rife with heartbreaking performances from everyone involved. And the score, one of the finest of the year, paired with the ability for Lowery’s camera to capture unexpected beauty in the face of despair, makes for an interesting, albeit familiar film.