Writer/director David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a simple enough story that speaks volumes. Further, it carries a lot of weight even if nothing particularly dramatic seems to be going on. And that’s the point. It’s part art piece, part love story, and though Lowery’s narrative is understated, it is simply stunning. From the cast, to the story, to the gorgeously simplistic visuals, nothing about this down home picture doesn’t just sing. You may not know the name David Lowery outside the Texas film community, but 2013 has been a big year for both him and his wonderfully crafted throwback film. From Dallas, to Sundance, to Cannes, Saints has made waves wherever it goes. And with good reason – Lowery’s film is a shining example that there are quality stories out there among the heaps of sequels, remakes, and cineplex swill.
Lowery, seemingly out of nowhere, pens and takes the helm of this heartfelt and engaging drama that is slightly noir-ish tragic love story. It’s a tapestry of benchmark acting, brilliant editing, purposeful framing and pacing, not to mention gorgeously shot scenes. It is a distinctive narrative, and one that begins with an interesting plot device where we see what might be considered the ending of any old movie, or the ending that traditional cinema might show us. Bob (Casey Affleck) and his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) have an argument, then rob a bank, run from the cops and surrender following the subsequent shootout. That’s where Lowery’s film really begins. This after-the-fact kind of story progresses and unfolds (in a slow but deceptively complex manner) to show us the lives the young and naive Texas couple now lead.
As a character, Bob is like a kid who will never grow up (something that Lowery, in interviews, admits having the same problem) and he won’t let a 25 stretch keep him from getting back to his wife or his daughter. After five attempts escaping prison he finally gets free. While a smarter man would let Ruth live her life, he puts them both in danger by doing whatever it takes to get back to her. Ruth tries her best to raise their young daughter in this timeless Texas town, even getting a little help from the local sheriff. Yet things aren’t quite what they seem. Much of what we see and get from the story can be best described as inference; Ain’t Them Bodies Saints lets you draw your own conclusions that more or less lines up with the direction of Lowery’s story. Same goes for the folky title actually.
That’s the beauty of the film; it’s not what you see but rather what you don’t see. The way Lowery has set the pace and establishes shots – it can be blink-and-you-miss-it exposition, or a seemingly unimportant scene with Ruth and Sylvie on a couch – is so romantic. It again comes not from what he chooses to show us, but what he doesn’t. For instance, we don’t see Bob escape from prison (or his four previous attempts), we are simply told that he has escaped. That proves that we don’t need certain extraneous bits to follow the story or understand these characters. It’s the less-is-more mindset which is surprising for the film, but also a distinction that Lowery has made for himself (no doubt a lesson learned from his days shooting and editing his short films). Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is stripped of unnecessary bits and focuses on the barest plot essentials – it’s quite nice to not be spoon-fed the plot for a change.
Adding to the allure of the story is the beautiful cinematography and vintage photo album type framing. Yet it’s far and away Affleck and Mara who make this movie. They disappear into their roles taking on these thick Texas accents. So much so that their portrayals very nearly make this feel like a foreign film. The beauty to their portrayals is that they never seem to be acting. Casey Affleck’s wonderful monologue about how he escaped from prison comes across so causally, every second the camera is on him seems entirely genuine. He is Bob. Same goes for Mara who, as Ruth, does so much with so little effort. Whether it’s slyly dealing with children having a little fun with a BB gun in the middle of the small-town Texas Street, or singing to Sylvie, she helps make Ain’t Them Bodies Saints look and feel like an observational story, not one that’s been staged.
On the surface, this seems like an extremely simple plot – one some may find it utterly boring – yet on a second or third viewing, the underplayed intricacies and complexities of the plot really come to light. One of which involves Sheriff Skerritt (a brilliant turn from Keith Carradine) who, in addition to his own son, raised both Bob and Ruth from a young age. Yet he’s not the altruistic small town law man one would expect. His back story, like the bank robbery, is something the audience is left to explore and figure out for themselves. Again it’s hinted at and inferred, but he has his fingers in so many pots with a reach that’s spelled out a little more on Lowery’s blog (see ATBS Frames, Pt. 6). He is the reason that Bob and Ruth are in the position they’re in.
The sort of fly on the wall manner of storytelling to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is its most noteworthy attribute. Lowery lets the actors “be” instead of “act”, and, like a Jim Jarmusch movie, focuses on the drama between the drama – something Lowery says he is more interested in anyway. There’s lots to love about this little film. In fact, the first time Carradine and Affleck meet up after Bob’s escape is not only a major turning-point in the story, but a metaphor for how unprepared the film world will be to receive this impressive movie. The film has a lived-in quality to it, and while this may seem familiar, it also feels wholly original; Saints’ simplicity is ultimately its brilliance. Allow this film to wash over you, and this small town tragic love story feels like a breath of fresh air and a warm blanket all at once. We need more films like this.