By Bill Fech.
David Lowery’s quiet western drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints came and went from theaters like a passing tumbleweed. The film grossed fewer than $400,000 domestically and fared little better overseas. Perhaps audiences expected an old-fashioned shoot ‘em up from what, at its core, is a love story that leans on a gentle, lyrical narrative. Here’s a tale that feels familiar—a young criminal couple in 1970s rural Texas trying to reunite after a botched crime—and freshly original in its eschewal of generic expectations. Focusing on attempts at reconciliation and redemption rather than crime and punishment, this dialogue-driven ballad favors quiet moments and short, subdued bouts of action. It’s this careful balancing of myth and the modern that makes Lowery’s impressive film, now on DVD and Blu-ray, a cut above most recent studio releases and worth catching up with.
Saints opens with the matter-of-fact text, “This was in Texas.” Has there been a more pithy variation on “Once upon a time” than this? The story involves Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara), a young couple who have decided to rob a business with the help of a friend, Freddie, in anticipation of raising a child. Bob sees the future optimistically; he wants to settle down and start a farm. The job goes south, though, and in the ensuing standoff Freddie is killed and Ruth wounds an officer, Patrick (Ben Foster in a wonderful turn), an offense which Bob takes the rap for, telling her to wait for him. Bob seems convinced of their reunion: it is, as he puts it, a “higher calling,” something much too important for him to dither around in jail for. Sure enough, a few years later, Bob escapes and begins his trek home, where Ruth has erstwhile settled in nicely with their daughter, Sylvie (played by twin actresses Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith).
As written by Lowery and performed by Mara, Ruth is difficult at times to read. Before and after Bob’s escape, she appears content in her new life; if she misses him horribly, she doesn’t speak it. When authorities question her about Bob’s intentions, she plays it cool and claims he won’t return for her, protecting him. Yet she also tolerates the tender advances of Patrick, who checks in from time to time and, we are led to believe, doesn’t know it was Ruth who shot him. (Over the course of the film, we get the sense that Patrick would make a perfect husband and father to Ruth and her daughter.) And in one brief scene, Ruth snags a neighborhood boy’s BB gun and fires off a round, flashing a smirk that says she may retain an illicit streak.
Bob is easier to figure: he wants his family. Aside from dodging pursuing cops who track him to a friend’s bar, he also must contend with Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the former local crime boss who employed Bob for “runs.” Skerritt’s boy was Freddie—gunned down in the robbery—and he blames Bob for his death. A noble man who now runs a sleepy hardware store, Skerritt looks out for Ruth and warns Bob to stay away. In a pitch-perfect dialogue scene between the two, Bob explains that he just wants his family. “So do I,” counters the older Skerritt, “but I can’t.”
Part of the film’s appeal is Lowery’s refusal to bend to sensational or unnecessary narrative or generic tropes. Take, for instance, the arrest of Bob and Ruth. Cutting from an insert of police on the heels of Bob’s speeding truck, the film throws us quickly into a farmhouse where the thieves hold out against police. Within only a minute or two, the gunfire fizzles out, and Bob and Ruth pledge to find each other in later years. A different film would have extended this shoot-out to maximize the more visceral elements of the action-western, but Lowery speeds right through it. The point is made. The pair is arrested and Bob takes the heat. The subsequent conflict—Bob’s attempts to get home and Ruth’s emotional dilemma—is where the crux of the film lay.
Lowery also resists turning Ain’t Them Bodies Saints into a revenge-soaked melodrama. I kept expecting an inevitable mano-a-mano skirmish between Bob and Patrick at the end—something the film’s trailer and sensational DVD cover art would have us believe. How easy it is to imagine this confrontation, but Lowery is too good a storytelling to fall into this cliché. He understands there is more to mine from the redemptive, fatalistic themes Bob plays out in his journey home and the noble intentions of Patrick, who “sees good” in Ruth’s current life. What action does take place is well-staged and pertinent to the drama—such as a struggle between Bob and a trio of mysterious drifters who want him dead—but those craving carnage may get bored.
Reviewers of the film often cite Terrence Malick as an influence at play, and indeed there are striking similarities. Both of Malick’s films from the 70s, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), are also lovers-on-the-lam narratives set (partially) in Texas; all three films use paradisiacal “magic hour” cinematography (captured after the sun has gone down but before natural light has totally vanished); and all films are period pieces that feel both epic in scope and taut in narrative construction. In this and other ways, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints seems lifted out of the 70s Hollywood Renaissance, a time when young, daring auteurs embraced yet tweaked generic classicism to suit their personal vision. Lowery, who also wrote the script, is a skilled storyteller who seems influenced by the works of Malick, Arthur Penn, or Robert Altman, but as Mara says in the behind-the-scenes featurette in the disk’s special features, Saints “is different from Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands because this film begins where those films end,” that is, at the young couple’s attempts to move beyond criminal life.
Granting the aforementioned similarities to Malick, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints leaves behind the metaphysical tenor and microscopic attention to nature that distinguishes Malick as an auteur. Bob and Ruth don’t contemplate the world around them so much as try to survive within it. Further, whereas Malick often deploys voice over as ephemeral subjectivity, with words unmoored from strict narrative function, Lowery’s voice overs are much more standard: Bob simply speaks the letters he’s penned to Ruth.
Not until the film fades to black does the title appear. It’s a title one has to say slowly, with purpose, and even then people are likely to have you repeat it. Other reviewers have cited Lowery’s own explanation of it: “It means that everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, has the potential to be a good person.” All of the principal characters think they are doing right. Bob wants to be with his family; Ruth may still love Bob, but wants to protect her daughter from the trouble he tows with him; Patrick wants to help Ruth get a fresh start; and Skerritt, wizened caretaker of Ruth since abandoning crime life, likewise wants to play protector. So often in tragedies like this, the conflicting honorable interests of characters result in heartbreak.
Those unfamiliar with Lowery’s work will enjoy the 2-disk Special Edition, which contains his first feature, St. Nick (2009), a very low-budget film which quietly played the festival circuit under strong reviews. Akin to Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) in its unadorned realism, the film observes two sibling children running away from home. It’s a lovely film that the right person must have seen to give Lowery a bigger canvas and more resources to make Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The remaining special features are thin, though fortunately they’ve included a wonderful original song sung by actor Carradine. It alone is worth checking out.
Hopefully this excellent film finds new audiences in its home entertainment release. Its writer/director, whom one feels is on the precipice of wider renown, is a vision worth following. Count me among those eager to see what he does next.
Bill Fech, Instructor of Writing and Film at Oregon State University, has graduate degrees in English and European Cinema. He healthily obsesses over global art film, genre, and auteurism. He also contributes reviews to the journal Film and History and looks forward to enrolling in a PhD program someday.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was released on DVD and Blu-ray by MPI Home Video on December 17th, 2013.