Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an impressive debut* from David Lowery and is just a smidgen shy of complete excellence.
*Apparently it is Lowery’s third feature, but is the first one seen by just about anyone; apologies.
Following the plight of an estranged couple, Bob & Ruth, in the mid-twentieth century, separated by a prison sentence, we follow their parallel lives as Ruth has their child and raises her while Bob spends his time in prison. Jump four years ahead and Bob has escaped from prison and Ruth’s home town prepares for his attempted return to her, something everyone around her don’t see eye to eye on.
Rooney Mara stars as Ruth and she does a fantastic job as the strong and quiet single mother. Making ends meet, with the help of surrogate father Skerritt (an intimidating Keith Carradine), Ruth and her daughter, Sylvie, are getting by just fine and Lowery does a fantastic job of capturing the sweet everyday routine of the pair and naturally evolves the anxiety at the possible return of Casey Affleck’s Bob.
Lowery almost entirely avoids exposition, letting you put together the pieces of the plot, and it is a breath of fresh air after the summer movie season. There is almost an entire film’s worth of background barely alluded to when it comes to Bob and Ruth’s criminal past, as the incident we see open the film becomes clear is just one of many crimes this team committed. The natural feel of the film paired with the arresting visuals is what sets this film apart from the pack and Lowery assembled a fantastic cast to fill this simple story with characters and a world that feel lived in.
Special mention has to be given to Lowery and his cinematographer, Bradford Young, who wear their Malickian influence on their sleeves all while blazing a picture that feels all their own. Daniel Hart’s score is also one of my favorites of the year as it perfectly accompanies his director’s vision, adding a level emotion you all too rarely get from today’s composers. The film is a visual and aural feast all the way through the sound design, whose blaring cicadas will go down as one of my favorite uses of sound this side of Upstream Color (which Lowery helped edit). I watched this one at home and I wish I had gotten to see it in a theater. If it plays close to home I will guarantee you that I make the trip out to see it.
The film works flawlessly until near the end of the film when the inevitable plot has to culminate and you couldn’t help but feel that this was a movie after being sucked so far into the reality this film creates for 90 percent of its run time. I imagine this won’t be an issue on a second viewing as the scenes in question are pretty well executed and create a great sense of tension, but the change of pace threw me just enough to knock me out of sync. Still, minor, minor quibbles with an otherwise perpetually excellent film.
I mentioned that Mara was excellent in the film, but it can’t be understated just how affective her work is. She never goes for the showy moment, is always in control, yet you can see her wheels turning as she struggles with what is best to do for the piece of her heart Bob and the piece of her heart for her daughter. Casey Affleck gives another great performance here as he has that air of danger to him that the character needs while still being a sympathetic soul you can root for at times. Carradine shines in his brief role, but I wish he got a better moment in the end as he certainly seems like a bad ass that isn’t to be messed with. Ben Foster is also quietly great as a local police officer that befriends Ruth and it is nice to see him not have to play the crazy guy in a movie for a change, even if I love that crazy guy. He plays his desires for Ruth perfectly as the film thankfully avoids some drama that could arise between the two that most other films would bite at. Charles Baker and Nate Parker are also worth a mention as both are very good in their brief roles, though I would have loved a bit more background on both of their pasts if it could have been folded in naturally.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is one of the year’s best and David Lowery is instantly one of top young directors working today after his first film. A great cast and a wonderful technical display make the film an easy recommendation as this crime tale strips away the familiar tropes to a tell a human story about the consequences of a life of crime. Small, simple and extremely effective, I can’t recommend the film much higher. It’s available right now on your couch, but it demands to be seen on the big screen if at all possible; I certainly hope I get the opportunity.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an A