Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Critics often urge readers to see a particular film in a theater, noting that the movie looks and sounds so amazing on a big screen, they'll miss something valuable by watching on a TV or worse yet, a laptop or tablet. I've said it myself any number of times. I'm certain that if I'd seen Ain't Them Bodies Saints in a movie theater, that is exactly what I would tell you.
And yet, watching the movie from a studio-watermarked DVD on a laptop, sitting on my bed, I was entirely absorbed by the beauty and intensity of this movie, struck by the subtle soundtrack, as mesmerized as I might have been if I'd seen it projected from 35mm at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.
It's not an unfamiliar story, enriched by unexpectedly nuanced characters. Ruth (Rooney Mara) discovers she's pregnant with Bob's child, and shortly after, they're caught by police after committing a crime in their small Texas town. Bob (Casey Affleck) ends up imprisoned while Ruth waits and cares for the child. Bob can't bear to be penned up away from his family, and meanwhile Sheriff Wheeler (Ben Foster) and retired criminal Skerritt (Keith Carradine) are keeping an eye on Ruth in different ways.
Filmmaker David Lowery has created a world that feels unabashedly cinematical, but not in an artificial way that draws attention to itself -- not precious, as the Wes Anderson detractors might say. I don't know when the movie is set, and if you told me beforehand this was a 1970s movie I might almost have believed you. I noticed no contemporary technology or touches -- I can't even tell you what period the cars (mostly ancient pick-ups trucks) were from. And the actors are so submerged in their roles, and so unrecognizable, that they fit this universe perfectly.
I'm told that local filmmaker David Zellner and actress Heather Kafka appear briefly, and I've seen both of them in so many films that I'm surprised I didn't recognize them -- surprised and pleased, because it might have pulled me out of the illusions of the film.
All of this makes Ain't Them Bodies Saints sound pretentious, and arty, and all those things that can cause filmgoers to roll their eyes as they read reviews. It's not. It's simple and elegantly rendered, and timeless. Ain't Them Bodies Saints earned Bradford Young a well-deserved cinematography award at Sundance this year -- he does amazing things with light and shadow. The film delights in exquisite visual details, but they are all in service of the movie as a whole. I was also impressed with the score by Daniel Hart, especially before and during one of the climactic scenes of the film.
Lowery's previous feature was the equally compelling St. Nick, which I saw at SXSW 2009 and which unfortunately still does not seem to have distribution -- someone please pick it up and get it out there. Both movies have a similar otherworldly feel, and do not rely on dialogue to drive their plots. And both movies refuse to lean on backstory, leaving you to fill in the blanks -- or not -- as needed. (And both movies were/will be on my top-ten lists for their respective release years.)
I intend to see this movie again -- on a big screen, with an audience. If it were available in 35mm, I would make a special effort to watch it in that format, since it was shot on film. But Ain't Them Bodies Saints will grab you and hold you no matter what format and environment you choose.
Austin/Texas connections: Filmmaker David Lowery is a former Austinite. He and many cast/crew live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. While Ain't Them Bodies Saints was primarily shot in Louisiana, it is set in a small Texas town and some reshoots may have taken place in the Lone Star State. Update: David Lowery let me know that a few scenes were shot in Austin: "We shot one scene in a field over by Austin Studios and another one in Bryan Poyser's backyard (when Rooney Mara is hanging up laundry and talking to Keith Carradine)." And Statesman critic Matthew Odam pointed out that you can see the Meridian (Texas) courthouse in a few scenes, too.