‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ Movie Review
Picking up where similar Western outlaw sagas left off (Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints quietly and reverently sidesteps the familiar tropes of the genre. When I spoke with writer-director David Lowery (St. Nick) at the film’s press day, he said he wanted it to feel like a folk song – and so it does. Saints unfolds like a sad but deeply romantic bluegrass ballad about two dreamers — young, wild and free — whose quelled inner fantasies are constantly at odds with life’s harsh realities. Lowery uses dialogue sparingly, each line as purposeful as the one before it, drawing us closer to the rich players and unforgiving world they were born into. Let it be known — Lowery is a truly anointed storyteller, from whom we can expect great things.
I was taken aback by the understated beauty of this film, both visually and narratively. The Malik-inspired static shots of windswept grains and magic hour lens flares appear stunning as ever in Saints, thanks to Sundance-winning cinematographer Bradford Young (Middle of Nowhere, Pariah). This is a slow-burner, so don’t expect a mash-up of high-stakes stickups and firefights. Instead Saints delivers ten fold on sympathetic human drama, stemming from Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie’s (Rooney Mara) tragic, star-crossed relationship. Whether pining after infamy or trying to make ends meet, these Texas Hill Country bumpkins live outside the law. But our journey with Bob and Ruth picks up after their crime spree ends and before their fifteen minutes of fame begins. When a shootout goes awry, Ruth shoots a noble cop named Patrick Wheeler, played by Ben Foster. Knowing Ruth’s pregnant, Bob bears the 25-to-life sentence and, for the rest of the film, stops at nothing to reunite with her and meet his daughter.
On paper, gravel-voiced Bob Muldoon is a hard-boiled criminal, but Lowery explores an alternate version of this archetype that’s far more compassionate than he is trigger-happy. He’s never even killed a man. From the outset, Affleck snaps into this tender, relentless family man who we can’t help but root for. He delivers a haunting monologue into a mirror that is particularly authentic but that’s only one of many brilliant moments from the Gone Baby Gone star. His beloved Ruth is just as layered. After squandering her innocence several robberies back, she’s now saddled with guilt, single motherhood and Patrick Wheeler’s tempting embrace. Ruth doesn’t say much, but Mara offsets the silence with compelling non-verbal work. Though separated by distance, you really believe that these two – Bob and Ruth — are madly, recklessly in love.
However, the scene-stealer award goes to Ben Foster (Kill Your Darlings, 3:10 to Yuma). The beautiful thing about Lowery’s writing is you don’t know which character deserves your sympathy the most; and, for me, Foster’s Wheeler edges out Affleck’s Muldoon by a hair. The saying “nice guys finish last” was written about Patrick Wheeler. In Ruth, he sees beyond the damaged goods and finds only “good.” He loves unconditionally and without an ulterior motive. Every one of Foster’s interactions with Mara is gut-wrenching to behold. The entire supporting cast is stellar, notably veteran Western actor Keith Carradine as Ruth’s protective father figure and Nate Parker as Bob’s partner in crime. I’d be remiss not to mention Daniel Hart’s stirring arrangement of banjos, mandolins and handclaps. Making itself known at all the right moments, the score becomes its own supporting character by film’s end.
To close – this film is not for everyone. It requires an appreciation for poetic, plodding indie dramas and a Southern-sized portion of patience leading up to a very rewarding, if drawn out, conclusion.
8 out of 10
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