Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

I was reading articles about Ain't Them Bodies Saints before the film came out, pieces on blogs and in the New York Times praising the directorial debut of David Lowery (best known as editor of Upstream Color) and the still unfolding talent of Rooney Mara. It's unfortunate when the idea of a film takes greater hold than the film itself. Ain't Them Bodies Saints passed through theaters without making an impact either at the box office or on awards conversation and landed on that never-shrinking pile of films we all mean to get around to seeing. Lowery's film is more than worth your time.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints pulses with the spirit of the best freewheeling 1970's films, and the film is indeed set in '70s Texas. Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) are a pair of young bank robbers whose criminal career ends in a shootout on some abandoned property owned by Bob's late father. Ruth wounds a policeman named Patrick (Ben Foster) but Bob takes the blame and is sent to prison. A few years later Ruth is quietly raising the couple's daughter Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) in a house owned by a man named Skerritt (Keith Carradine) who seems to be the father of another man killed in the original robbery. Lowery's script is a little vague on Skerritt; there's a suggestion that he's benefiting from the robberies and he later hires some gunmen who have shown up looking for Bob at someone else's request. When word comes that Bob has escaped from prison the film becomes a waiting game as Ruth prepares for Bob's intentions to become clear. Some plot details could have been made more explicit, but the film works anyway thanks to a steely performance by Rooney Mara as Ruth. Even when Ruth and Bob are swooning over each other in the first few scenes Ruth is unromantic and clear-eyed about the challenges of life ahead. Each performance I've seen Mara give seems entirely different from the one before, and here she's excellent as a person saddled with guilt who's slowly figuring out that her life has changed irrevocably. Ben Foster has a great sober dignity as Patrick, whose feelings for Ruth are becoming hard to contain, and Casey Affleck is the ideal actor for Bob's earnest and slightly overwritten declarations of love for Ruth. The overwriting is by design I think, since Bob is the one still frozen in the great love he and Ruth shared before he went away while Ruth has moved on to the concerns of work and parenting. David Lowery gets great support from cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Daniel Hart. Ain't Them Bodies Saints looks gorgeous and feels entirely from another time, establishing its setting through clothes and architecture rather than played out music cues or cultural references. Those yet to discover this film are in for the pleasant surprise of a film that looks backwards and forwards in equal measure.

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