Cinematic Folk Ballad

Film review of David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

(IFC Films, USA 2013)

AintThemBodiesSaints

“Every day I wake up thinking today’s gonna be the day I’ll see you again. And one of these days, it will be so.” – Bob Muldoon

A timeless ballad of love and loyalty that strikes humanistic and metaphysical chords under the open Texas skies, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is wistful American folk mythology at its finest. Lowery’s rural portrait lives up to its festival circuit hype, borrowing from but not clinging to the literary tradition of Faulkner and the lyrical cinematic strands of Malick’s earlier work. The film is a fully blossomed tale replete with stunning visuals and substance to boot.

At the epicenter of this tale are nuanced and captivating performances by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as the outlaw duo Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon. The strong chemistry between the lovers is the mainstay of the film, lending credibility and piquancy to a plot that’s rather simple in its Odyssean core. When Ruth and Bob are arrested following a farmhouse shoot-out that leaves one person dead and a local Sheriff wounded, Bob takes the hit entirely and receives a twenty-five-to-life sentence. While Bob’s in jail, Ruth, pregnant with their first child, vows to wait for his return, which he promises in poignant letters. Some years later, Ruth learns of Bob’s recent jailbreak, and her previously uncomplicated life turns on its head as she grapples with her lover’s imminent homecoming. But Ruth’s not the only party anxiously awaiting Bob: latent resentments have been stirred, and it’s clear that Bob’s life will be in considerable danger if he dares to show his face in town again.

Affleck brings Bob to life with bracing passion and perilously unbridled idealism; Rooney’s restrained, meditative, and quietly agonizing Ruth is emotionally engaging as she weighs her own safety and that of her child’s with her desire to be reunited with Bob. According to Lowery (via Filmmaker), the pair was only on set together for three days. That said, Affleck and Rooney’s lack of screen time together is inconspicuous, which is a testament to the power of the film’s remaining elements. Editors Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo have engineered a pace that oscillates between slow-burn emotional moments and the suspenseful build-up of dread. The film’s score, by Daniel Hart, speaks to both sides of the pacing continuum with a succession of hand claps and long-winded evocative notes. The score pays homage to the film’s folksy roots without resorting to, say, archetypal banjo strums, and in doing so it helps to elevate the film from a straight Western to a modernist art house achievement. Most evident of all is the cinematography by Bradford Young, who appropriates the sun flare unapologetically and draws an array of precise and romantic exercises in light. 

Lowery’s script is notably short on dialogue and exposition, which works in the film’s favor by allowing Lowery the space in which to engage us viscerally through small gestures, pregnant pauses, dreamlike imagery, and subtext. The characters’ motivations are rarely explicit, largely forcing us to extrapolate their emotional architecture, but there’s plenty of substance to render this effort fruitful. Oftentimes the lack of specificity in the narrative allows the film to play like a dream: the details are never quite as important as the sensations, symbolism, and overall immersive quality. (Not surprisingly, this quality of the film bears a striking resemblance to Upstream Color, which Lowery himself edited.) This emphasis on simplicity of narrative has attracted much criticism–as if Lowery’s restraint were akin to laziness–but many critics fail to remember that the film’s self-proclaimed identity as a folk poem calls for a certain sobriety of exposition, therefore encouraging fullness of presence and feeling. 

In a powerful moment of circularity at the end of the film, Lowery manages to evoke through the simplest interaction between Bob and Ruth a nostalgia for unfulfilled dreams, youthful idealism, and the tragedy of a life not fully lived.

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