Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (***1/2)

Written and Directed by David Lowery


The evolution of the American Western in cinema is a fascinating one. Once the jewel of all Hollywood genres, it was marked by plots outlining black & white moralities. In the 1960's, the movies became more cynical, the thrill of cowboy action was replaced by science fiction, and the Western has been a niche genre ever since. When a Western strikes with audiences these days (does anyone remember the last time that happened?) it's usually for gimmicky reasons. But in 2007, three films came out - the Coens' No Country For Old Men, Andrew Dominick's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood - that changed the spectrum of the Western. The Wild West was no longer seen as a thrill ride where white and black hats faced off, but instead showcased a nightmarish, barren landscape filled with greed and danger. David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a continuation of that tradition.

Lowery is a rather prolific independent filmmaker of many hats himself. He's directed, written and produced over ten different projects (mostly shorts) over the last decade, and add to that he even edits a lot of other people's material (which includes Shane Carruth's much lauded Upstream Colour from earlier this year, which I've still yet to see). I've never seen any of Lowery's other material, so I can't attest to how much Ain't Them Bodies Saints reflects the rest of his filmography, but his latest certainly feels like the work of a filmmaker who's very sure of himself and his vision. It's a work of Mallickian discipline and patience, allowing it's story to pace along in whispery tones and haunted settings. It's one of the most beautifully made movies of the year and one of the most confident westerns made in several years. In his first major film, David Lowery announces himself as one of the premiere young filmmakers of his day.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints is the story of the young, midland Texas couple Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara). Bob and Ruth have known each other since they were young children, and as young adults they're in love with each other in that silly, immature kind of way that can only bring irresponsible behavior. After Ruth tells Bob that she's pregnant, the two decide to team up with their other childhood friend, Freddy (Kentucker Audley), to rob someone of thousands of dollars. Not long after the crime, they are chased by police until they are cornered into Bob and Ruth's shanty shack in a shootout. When Freddy is shot and killed, Ruth picks up Bob's gun and fires at police, and hits officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). Bob and Ruth agree that Bob will turn himself in for Ruth's crime, and she will pretend to be an innocent participant. As Bob is carted off to prison, Ruth promises to anyone who will listen that she will wait for him.

Years later, Bob and Ruth's daughter, Sylvie (played by the twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith), is a very healthy toddler, and they receive adoring letters from Bob often. Ruth and Sylvie live in a house given to them by Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the father of the killed Freddy and the caretaker of Bob and Ruth when they were wayward children. When news that Bob has broken out of prison comes to light, both Skerritt and Patrick worry about the danger that he will bring to Ruth and Sylvie. Bob is not only wanted by the police, but also wanted by those he stole from and ripped off before he was imprisoned. A particularly marked man, Bob snakes through his former hometown with extra care, with his friend and bar owner, Sweetie (Nate Parker), the only person willing to give him shelter as he hides out. As Bob searches for Ruth so he can finally envision his great escape, both Patrick and Skerritt do what they can to protect Ruth from what Bob is capable of.

Saints screenplay is simple and tidy, but Lowery is able to capitalize on the few opportunities he has to create numerous moments of suspense and dread. There's something fated about Ruth and Bob's love story - fated and doomed. These characters, so naive and so determined, spend so much time deceiving one another that the truth becomes too illusive to keep track of. And even though Saints' ending seems to be more convenient than the rest of the story suggests, it also fits within the quaintness, using the threat of violence to scurry up emotions in the audience much more often than actual acts of violence. Lowery places Saints in a ominous mysterious setting, the decade never definite and the location always a bit blurry. Its identity is entirely cinematic, its setting made real by the characters that inhabit it, filled with an ensemble cast that makes everything vibrant and alive.

Casey Affleck has always been an interesting foil to his much more celebrated brother, Ben. He's got a face that expresses menace without a whole lot of effort. He has played a lot of murderers and psychopaths in these last few years, but Saints taps into his delicate side, showcasing a heart that rarely gets a chance to shine. Rooney Mara, as well, is a performer who brings an ominous threat to every character she plays. It's what made her such a fantastic femme fatale in Soderbergh's noirish film Side Effects earlier this year, and an even better Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. With her dreary personae, she always seems to be up to something, and that's a trait that she carries along within Saints and it makes what could be a one-note character and turns her into a fascinating enigma. Her loyalties to both Bob, and Skerritt and Patrick are constantly getting entangled together as she plays whatever part she needs to play to keep herself and her young daughter safe.

As the complex police officer Patrick Wheeler, Ben Foster continues to show off his chameleonic abilities. He's another actor who's able to show off a brewing mania using just his expression, and he's done so brilliantly in movies like 3:10 To Yuma and The Messenger. But his softness here represents the moral center of the story, perhaps the only character in the entire movie who is a genuinely good and honest human being. His infatuation with Ruth is probably misguided, but there's never a doubt that it's pure. As the intimidating patriarchal figure lording over the small country town, Keith Carradine gives his most memorable performance in years, and probably the best one of his career. The entire film is chock-full of terrific small performances, including Nate Parker as Bob's only friend left in town and Charles Baker as a thug and Billy Bob Thornton look-a-like out to collect on Bob's debts.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a rarity. A film that is haunting and taut, while still being dreamy and beautiful. The work of cinematographer Bradford Young is crisp and stark, with numerous scenes filled with soft yellows that make the whole image tender. There seems to be a particular effort paid toward the framing of Rooney Mara's face, which makes an already beautiful actress totally regal. It goes hand-in-hand with Daniel Hart's wonderfully intoxicating musical score that pulsates throughout, giving off the perfect cues. This collection of young filmmaking talent excites me. In his first chance with a major cast, Lowery executes his vision with the timber of a filmmaker with whole lot more under his belt. Hopefully there is a lot more still to come.

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