Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (Sundance 2013)
PLOT: Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bill (Casey Affleck) are outlaws- who scrape by pulling small-time jobs in the hills of Texas. When they're ambushed by the cops, and Ruth shoots a local deputy- Patrick (Ben Foster), Bill takes the wrap allowing the pregnant Ruth to go free. Years later, Bill escapes prison, and seeks to reunite with Ruth, and the daughter he never knew.
REVIEW: AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS feels like a lost Terrence Mallick movie from the seventies. It's more than a little reminiscent of DAYS OF HEAVEN and (especially) BADLANDS, and I don't take that comparison lightly. With this film, director David Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot previous Sundance hits PARIAH and MIDDLE OF NOWHERE) mark their arrival into the indie big-leagues in a huge way.
Certainly, the premise is nothing new. The story owes more than a little to BADLANDS, BONNIE & CLYDE, and a Robert Altman film called THIEVES LIKE US (with it's star, Keith Carradine playing an important role here). But- rather than set the focus on the on-the-run outlaw, played by Affleck, Lowery's film stays squarely on Mara's Ruth. After years of trouble-making, she's become utterly reformed through the love of her daughter, and only wants to provide for her child. She's easy to like, with Bill's outlaw boss- Skerritt (Carradine) treating her like a daughter, while the deputy that she shot, loves her from afar.
This is the strength of Lowery's film- everyone's likability. AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS has no villains, with even Affleck's fugitive Bill being a particularly tenderhearted soul, with a strong aversion to killing or any kind of violence at all. He's a man in love who only wants to provide for his family- and Affleck is ideally cast. I've always been a huge fan of his (his performance in GONE BABY, GONE is one of my favorites), and it's nice to see him back in a film worthy of his talents.
Usually, Foster's wounded deputy would be the baddie- out for some measure of revenge, but nope- that's not the case. Within moments, it's clear that he cares about Ruth, and truly- I think this is the best performance I've ever seen Foster give, better than even THE MESSENGER. Foster sometimes has a tendency towards big acting, but here- he's incredibly subtle as the kind Patrick. As for Mara, after THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, this feels like a particularly smart follow-up, with the warm, maternal Ruth being about as different from Lisbeth Salander as you can get, but she feels perfectly cast, and truthful in the part.
In a way though, it could be said that the real star of the movie is Lowery. In ninety minutes, AIN'T THEM BODIES is very light on plot (everything I've described in this review essentially happens in the first ten minutes), with most of it's time spent on building atmosphere, or quieter moments establishing the inner-lives of the characters. This wouldn't always work- but Lowery is remarkably proficient with this kind of film-making, in the same way as other Mallick devotee David Gordon Green. While the Mallick-style drama seems to becoming a genre of it's own, the simplicity and likability of the characters, and the absolutely beauty of the visuals make this a must-see. Hopefully, it'll get a good theatrical release, as the big-screen is where this belongs.