I want to like Ain't Them Bodies Saints a lot more than I do. Arriving at the tail end of summer blockbuster season, David Lowery's somber, serious new feature contains much that is good. Its look is distinct. Its cast packs plenty of indie-film star power. Its formal strategies and its borrowings from other movies are clever and unusual. In short, it's a helluva calling card. But Lowery simply isn't there yet. He might not be great now, but he should be real soon.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints sings the ballad of Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck), a couple of kids who are on the verge of starting a family when Bob is sent to jail after a bank robbery gone bad. While in prison, Bob vows to reunite with his beloved and live the American dream together. But in his absence, Wheeler (Ben Foster), a lawman shot during the standoff that ended with Bob's arrest, takes an interest in Ruth's well-being that appears more than neighborly.
With a couple of notable exceptions, Lowery's film follows the "lovers on the run" template used by filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express) and Terrence Malick (Badlands) early in their careers. Because this template offers simplicity, precision, and flexibility, Lowery has plenty of chances to show off his formal skill. He's especially good at elliptical editing: the birth and growth of Ruth and Bob's daughter is shown in three or four cuts that take no more than 30 seconds. The bank robbery isn't shown at all.
The film's crepuscular glow is more distinctive still. Whether sunlight, lamplight, or headlight, most of the illumination in any given scene conceals as much as it reveals. This strategy serves to taint the purity of the characters' intentions; Bob may be a romantic, but he often has to lurk in the shadows like a fugitive. Ruth is frequently shot in profile, her long, black hair concealing her face like a long, black veil.
The dialogue in the film often reaches for a kind of colloquial poetry. Most of the time, though, it works too hard to enlarge the smallness of relationship platitudes. For every scene when Affleck puts over a line like "They don't know things the way they think they know, " there are two scenes where he wrestles in his clenched-teeth way with lines from the "I knew yew before yew was even born" school of romantic infatuation.
Unlike Affleck, Ben Foster doesn't overemphasize the local color of his character. His performance, particularly those scenes that follow his gentle, stumbling, fumbling courtship of Ruth (She: "I'm so goddamned tired." He: "Then rest." She: "While you lay with me while I do?"), are the film's highlights. By emphasizing Wheeler's sensitivity as a key part of his masculinity, Foster etches one of the year's most delicate performances.
Imagery, actors, some strangely unstuck-in-time music: everything is there. Lowery's developing a gentle yet firm voice. But, right now, that voice can make you drowsy.
(Lowery's last feature, 2009's St. Nick, screened at Indie Memphis. He was also on the crew of Open Five, a feature from Memphis actor/filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who has a small role in Ain't Them Bodies Saints.)
Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Opening Friday, September 6th
Malco's Forest Hill Cinema