Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

There's a swirling beauty in the muted color palette in the period outlaw love story Ain't Them Bodies Saints.  The camera flows and swirls, the meticulous compositions are nearly divinely filmed and authentically observed.  If there's thing major takeaway from the film that was a hit at this years Sundance Film Festival-- where it garnered a seemingly much deserved cinematography prize-- and I do believe there is just one, it's in the discovery and hopefulness of a great find in director David Lowery.  He stages his tale-- one steeped partially in cinematic homage but also carved out of legend-- with such an assurance, a confidence, a tender but sharply honed-in verve, one in such that stretches of the film merely coast on its effervescent dream-like potential.  The work of Terrence Malick reads a huge influence aesthetically, but the great Robert Altman films McCabe and Mr. Miller and Thieves Like Us and perhaps, most influentially, Bonnie & Clyde figure in as clear pieces of the framework of this tale of doomed love in the Texas Hill Country in the 1970s.

Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are the young rebels, without much cause and it's both a strength and weakness of the film that their crimes, either of passion or ennui, are left vague and ambiguous.  We start with a shoot out in an old farmhouse.  An old-school outlaw versus the police showdown; Ruth, whose just found out she's about to be a mother, has just fired and perhaps shot a police officer; one of their criminal cronies may be dead.  It ends peacefully with a promise from Bob to always return to Ruth and their unborn child as the two are cuffed and are taken from their house; the flame of their passion ignites the screen in this seemingly iconic little sequence that teases a lifetime of texture, danger and lived-in romantic desire.

Nearly four years has passed; Bob is in prison having taken the blame for any culpability that may have been committed by Ruth and she is living a closed-in little life raising her young daughter Sylvie, having been humbly provided for by Skerritt (a wonderful Keith Carradine), an assumed overseer of past criminal work doled out by Bob.  There's a gentle, lived-in authenticity to the subtle strokes of storytelling-- one in which teases and glimmers are carefully parceled out but never thoroughly explained-- in the early patches of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, but Lowery (who also wrote the screenplay) seems to rely too heavily on the mystique of legend he's staged rather than creating a crisp narrative to become fully emotionally connected to.  It's that distance that bogs down the drama and ultimately stifles his impressionistic visuals-- the closer you get to Ain't Them Bodies Saints reveals sadly nothing.

The story of Bob and Ruth-- pitched as sort of the outlaws in woe version of Sleepless in Seattle and mostly related through a series of love letters written with not much more of a sense of urgency or heft one might expect from Twlight fan fiction-- unfortunately never expands the drama or the characters.  Affleck, who for his part looks ever bit the rogue outlaw perfectly and on paper seems the best showcase for his particular talents since his wonderful Oscar-nominated part in The Assassination of Jesse James, and Mara, whose porcelain countenance belies a steely resolve, have some nice little touches and a studied mechanics to their accents, but since Ain't Them Bodies Saints does so much to keep nearly all details a secret, it's difficult for the performers to rise above the ideas of the standards of which they play.  Bonnie and Clyde, for instance, were firmly established and resonant characters inside and only legendarily doomed romantic figures on the outside.

News comes out that Bob has successfully escaped from prison-- in keeping with the legend of it's mysterious and fictional anti-hero, it's revealed to be his sixth attempt.  Naturally the focus turns to Ruth for information-- leading the investigation is the kindly (and perhaps a bit too saintly) cop Patrick (Ben Foster), who has a not-so-secret crush on Ruth-- he also happens to be the police officer that was shot in the farmhouse melee at the beginning of the film to bring the tragic circumstances of the leading characters full circle.  All three of seemingly doomed.

It's always a hard-wire act when concocting something meant and dreamed up to be bigger and grander to loom as a high as a legend-- last year's moribund Lawless had the same struggles on what was likely double-sized the budget of Ain't Them Bodies Saints.  It's trickier especially since Lowery and team are seemingly more interested in the commonplace touches than outside established iconography.  It's a great testament that large and small touches work, even in spite of itself here-- that's the telling of the confidence of a filmmaker and perhaps even more so with the stunning camerawork provided by Bradford Young (Middle of Nowhere, Pariah)-- the unfortunate thing that's missing from them saintly bodies is a beating heart.  B-

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