Film Review: “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” — Superbly Simple Noir
The understated soundtrack by Texas musician Daniel Hart and the ominous cinematography of Bradford Young complement director David Lowery’s keen sense of pacing.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Directed by David Lowery. At cinemas around New England.
By Tim Jackson
It may be because David Lowery spent a decade as a film editor that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, his first major feature, achieves such a poetic blend of image, acting, story, and music. The film, which stars Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine, tells a simple story: a man escapes from prison, hoping to reunite with his girlfriend and a young daughter he has never seen, born just after he was incarcerated. The director explores the textures of a small, isolated Texas town, its crowded bars, run down houses, jalopies, dusty roads, the faces of its hardscrabble characters. Lowery chooses emotional truth, the nuances of human drama, over the complexities of plot in a film that is paced like a slow-moving folk song, highlighted by heavy-hearted choruses filled with bad luck and broken dreams.
Bob Muldoon (Afleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Mara) are captured following a shootout in which officer Pat Wheeler (Ben Foster) is wounded. Guthrie pulled the trigger, but, because she’s pregnant, Muldoon takes the blame and serves the prison time. He writes her letters everyday, and when he finally escapes, he assures her, “You will see me again. One day I’ll be standing right behind you.” But his romantic dream of being a desperado on the lam, reuniting with his faithful woman, and disappearing into a new life, is cocky and half-baked. Those on his trail include the police, Officer Wheeler, and some bad-ass former associates. What makes the film so compelling is that we aren’t given much back-story; the audience is forced to put together the clues. Who are the punks looking for revenge? Is Officer Wheeler staking out Muldoon, or is he comforting Ruth because he is infatuated with her? The bitter irony is that she is the one who shot Wheeler. Muldoon, meanwhile, remains deeply in love, driven by an inflated sense of his own bad boy mystique. Comical bad luck dogs his journey to disaster.
The understated soundtrack by Texas musician Daniel Hart and the ominous cinematography of Bradford Young complement the director’s keen sense of pacing as the story cross cuts between Ruth and Muldoon. This elegantly photographed “southern noir” is rounded out by the understated performances of a strong cast. Keith Carradine plays, comfortably and convincingly, the kind of bedraggled western character he knows so well. Rooney Mara, as Ruth, is convincingly sensuous and starved, all bottled up emotion. It’s a part that serves her well following her high profile role in David Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Ben Foster, as we have seen from his turn in Six Feet Under to his role as villainous Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma, is able to dominate the screen. Here he disappears into the character of Wheeler. He buries his usual intensity under a drooping Texas mustache and a seductive, homespun personality capable of springing into action in a moment. His ambiguous motives keep the emotional suspense high.
Casey Afleck radiates a desperate, boyish charm as Bob Muldoon. Affleck’s subtle and heartbreaking performance is the portrait of a twitchy wreck of a man, farcical in his misfortune, lost in a macho fairy tale of his own making. At one point, in desperation, he hijacks a car. “Do you know who I am?” he asks the driver. The guy has no clue. At that moment, Muldoon realizes the extent of his folly. He is not the romantic bandit he dreamed he would be. The sad truth is that the hapless Muldoon is not the stuff of which legends are made. But he is the kind of very human material that inspires memorable movies.