Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels like a relic from another era, a lost film stored away in a vault from the ‘70’s. It also contains a rare, timeless quality that leaves the setting feeling modern and nostalgic. After debuting at Cannes earlier this year the film has gained buzz on the festival circuit and has finally secured a nationwide release. While the film won’t take the world by storm it deserves it’s due as a stunning directorial debut from David Lowery.
Lowery is clearly a student of the New American directors of the 1970’s. He imbues ATBS with his personal takes on Terrance Malick and Sam Peckinpah while never feeling indulgent. This brings to life natural, Malick-ean lighting (golden browns lit at magic hour) and long, tense shots of star-crossed love. It’s these touches that allow the film to feel familiar but also refreshing in a summer full of snarling indulgence.
Casey Affleck plays Bob Muldoon, a small time bank robber in Texas. He spends his days doing small jobs across the state while shacking up with his sweetheart Ruth (Rooney Mara.) They have dreams of growing old together and starting a family. Unfortunately their seedy history catches up with them quickly as the police close in on their small country shack. Unbeknownst to the police Ruth shoots one of them and Bob takes the fall separating them only months before she gives birth. Bob writes from prison everyday asking her to wait for him and penning beautiful visions of their quiet life to come.
Meanwhile, Ruth lives in a small country home next to her surrogate father Skerritt (Keith Carradine) while raising her son. When Bob escapes from prison (on what we’re told is his 5th attempt) Ruth begins to get visits from local sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster.) Sheriff Wheeler is the quiet type who doesn’t take kindly to law breakers. He wants Ruth to help him catch Bob, knowing he’ll come back to reclaim his family.
ATBS is a short film that somehow takes it’s time. We catch quick glimpses of Ruth and Bob’s young love that get more fleeting as we dive into their criminal present. The simple plot unfolds very naturally as Bob’s love for Ruth becomes an unhealthy obsession to reunite them. The doomed inevitability of their relationship hangs around the film like a weight getting heavier and heavier. It’s a testament to the actors as their well torn faces grow wearier with each passing day.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are two of the online casino best actors in modern day cinema. They’ve both had heavier roles but here they play it straight and subdued. They want something that’s unattainable and probably always was but whatever spark is left they’ll fight for it. I was consistently impressed with their ability to underplay a scene that could’ve potentially been Shakespearean in the hands of lesser performers. Ben Foster is also incredible as Sheriff Wheeler. Foster is a chameleon and will often show up as completely unrecognizable and once again he sinks deep into this lonely Sheriff. His connection with Ruth is real and it’s clearly difficult for him to pursue it while abiding by his sworn oath.
Director David Lowery deserves all the praise that comes his way. He may wear his influences on his sleeve but I’d rather watch a director influenced by Badlands than Transformers any day of the week. I hope Lowery continues to grow as a filmmaker because his initial vision is singular and confident. It’s exciting when a new director hits the ground running; you just hope he doesn’t trip on a big budget and fancy new shoes. My hunch is Lowery won’t.