Review: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Rating

Director
David Lowery
Screenplay
David Lowery
Length
96 min.
Starring
Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Nate Parker
MPAA Rating
R for some violence

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Review
Can love survive separation and desperation? Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a stylistic drama that attempts to explore a concept that’s been overdone and may have little life left in it.

David Lowery’s film is set in the 1970’s and features a terrific cast, but mines familiar territory with only visual flourish to carry it through. The story revolves around a young couple, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) who carry out an off-screen robbery that leads to a wounded officer (Ben Foster) and a dead partner. Bob is carted off to prison after convincing pregnant Ruth to lie and say it was entirely his idea and to wait for him to get out.

As his daughter grows up without him, Bob escapes from prison and makes his way back to Ruth so they can run away together and hide from the persuing authorities and others who might wish to see him dead. It’s in his attempts to meet and talk to Ruth that the film largely takes place. Various forces are at play trying to keep them apart, including an adoptive father (Keith Carradine), a concerned old friend (Nate Parker) and the wounded officer who’s trying to make sure that Ruth is safe while falling in love with her in the process.

Mara gets the most screen time here and does beautifully with it. The soft, gentle approach Ruth gives her a stalwart fierceness that belies her inner conflict: be whisked away by the man she loves or accept safety and stability with the young officer who she wounded several years earlier. The departure from her Lisbeth Salander character from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is vast and there’s little reason to believe that she couldn’t find a wonderful home within the indie film community much as her on-screen counterparts Affleck and Foster have.

Affleck is a soft-spoken actor and his characters frequently hide their intensity so as to cope with a world unaccustomed to such directness. He crafts characters that quickly and easily endear themselves to the audience and Affleck’s carefully guided performances are amazingly rich in spite of their subtlety.

The same can be said for Foster, who’s not given much to do here, but makes the most of a thinly-written character. Patrick Wheeler isn’t intended to be a defining character, he’s the wedge in a love triangle that is simply supposed to hold the place of the returning lover. Foster gives us that person, but provides the level-headed, comforting figure we need rather than just existing to bridge the gap in the emotional interim.

Lowery’s career is barely beginning and as a stylist, he achieves a great deal with mood and tension. Assisted by Bradford Young as director of photography, the pair create a lush, visually superlative environment for the characters to live in. Murky darkness, warm sunsets and other stunning settings give the film emotional depth through visual craftsmanship. Had Lowery directed the film off someone else’s stronger script, this might have been a great evocation of the genre. As it is, it’ merely a well-acted and visually-stimulating one.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints doesn’t go to excessive lengths to tell its story, keeping it confined to a small cast and avoiding unnecessary dialogue. However, without more compelling substance, the film almost feels hollow. The audience may fall for the characters, but it won’t be a situationally-derived admiration. Affleck, Mara and Foster bring the audience in and let them go at the end, but the film itself won’t resonate very long after the credits roll. It’s a film that showcases how a young director can create a visual palette of exquisite beauty, but focusing too much on the image and not enough on the story can create imperfections in the finished product.
Oscar Prospects
Unlikelies: Everything
Review Written
December 26, 2013

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