Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster
You may like this if you like: Badlands (Terence Malick, 1973), To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012)
After a gunfight with the police, young couple Bob (Affleck) and pregnant Ruth (Mara) are caught, and Bob subsequently given a sentence of 25 years to life. Ruth is left to raise the child alone while anxiously longing for Bob’s return. She does this despite the advances of local good intentioned police officer Patrick (Foster) who unknown to him, it was actually her that shot him in the shoulder at the shoot out, but Bob took the blame. With the prospect of being released from prison seeming to be increasingly unlikely, Bob escapes and travels across 70s Texas to be reunited with the woman he loves and the daughter he has never met.
Many have been very quick to describe Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as ‘Malick-esque’ like that is a genre all in itself. Though there can certainly be comparisons made, especially with Malick’s earlier offerings such as Badlands and Days of Heaven, David Lowery has in no way simply copy and pasted these films, but crafted what in my view is a beautiful and poignant human love story his own way.
Admittedly the dreamy shots of fields and skies may bare resemblance to auteurs such as Malick, but for me Lowery has used these techniques to create a film with an underlying feeling of yearning that feels genuine and heartbreaking. This is a film of time and place, with beautiful cinematography and excellent use of music making the setting seem timeless and magical.
Plot and narrative are only used when completely necessary: we never know why the couple were involved in a shoot out, and key plot developments such as Bob’s escape from prison are briefly mentioned as opposed to actually being shown. This for me is a sign of a confident director fully in charge of his film; we do not need to actually see these scenes if truth be told, as they would actually add very little to the feeling and emotions that the film encapsulates throughout. Not including such scenes allows the 105 minute running time to solely focus on the inner feelings of the characters involved. This is a running time that in my view is just about right.
The ever dependable Casey Affleck brings warmth and charisma to the enigmatic Bob, and though it is hard to sometimes understand what he is mumbling (I was reassured to read I was not the only one that found this), it is not actually that important. Bob’s emotions and feelings are encapsulated in both his facial expressions and his actions. These indeed may be quite simplistic, but that only enhances the power. After excellent performances in the differing roles of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Side Effects, Rooney Mara once again impresses in yet another completely different role. Ben Foster delivers what has to be his best performance I have ever seen with a suitably subdued and subtle performance evoking genuine sympathy and compassion. Excellent support is also provided by Keith Carradine in a perhaps minor, but still important role.
Though these characters may have differing interests and goals, they are all complex and have the best of intentions. There are no black and white good and bad characters, but their individual intentions inevitably produce conflicting interests.
Admittedly the slow-burn pace, and focus more on overall sense of feeling and mood rather than conventional narrative may not appeal to all and does require both patience and concentration. However, if you are willing to invest your time in these characters then the final third packs without doubt a true emotional punch. Though perhaps a little contrived at times, Lowery manages to take the usual clichés of the genre but still produce genuine and raw emotion.
Beautifully made, impeccably acted and thoroughly engaging: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints requires patience but through an understated focus on the purest of human emotions, proves that less can indeed be more.