Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the perfect antidote to anyone who has spent the summer overwhelmed by too many CG fight scenes, too much frantic cutting, too much shaky handheld camera work, too many sequels, and too many reboots. Saints is quiet, methodical, even meditative in its approach. It is a slow burn of emotion, not taking anyone toward a left turn or surprise destination, but to a dead-end. Everyone on board knows exactly where this ride is going to let off, yet they all climb aboard. Their life is just one long, hot summer day. The heat is unrelenting and muggy. The cicadas ceaselessly grind on—indifferent to their plight. Sweat-drenched shirts cling to their backs, always dirty and itchy. There isn’t any room for goals or dreams; just hope that it will all come to a merciful end.
The two lovers at the center are Ben (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara). They are far more in love than Bonnie and Clyde but far less successful in crime. We don’t know what their crime was, but we know that if their third did not screw up, they might have gotten away with it. But screw up, he did. During the shootout with the police, Ruth wings Officer Patrick (Ben Foster). Bob takes the blame and surrenders to the police, allowing Ruth to walk free. She raises their daughter, Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith), and waits. Bob writes, dreams, and vows to return. Six years later, he does, only to find Patrick in his house.
Saints could easily be set in an urban scenario, preferably the post-war years, and would make for a very compelling film noir. The camera work is not that of a pastoral period piece but utilizes a style of shooting and cutting found in most urban street movies. Maybe that is why the story and characters work so well in the small, rural towns of Texas; it is a movie completely out-of-place. Saints is the second feature-length from David Lowery, and he shows a sure hand from beginning to end. Both Lowery and Saints have garnered comparisons to Terrence Malick, specifically Days of Heaven and Badlands. Yes, there are shots of uncaring and compassionless nature. There are even some shots of vast fields of wheat blowing in the breeze. Just because we see a field of wheat, must we immediately intone Malick? Do we always utter the name Hitchcock every time a knife shows up on screen?
Saints is coated not only in the wet blanket of the Texas heat but in melancholy and dread. Characters seem to know that they are already dead; they just missed the ceremony. Their lives were irrevocably doomed one fateful day, and the choices they make just dig their grave a little deeper. In a movie like this, violence begets violence, pick up a gun and shoot someone, there is a really good chance that you are going to get shot too. Each of the characters seems to shrug and say, “No one gets out alive.” All that is left is to go through the motions. Bob is an escaped convict, and the police will certainly be waiting for him at Ruth’s house. Seeing her will cost him his life, but go he must. What is it that motivates him? A promise? Love? A sense of duty? Maybe it is the soundtrack by Daniel Hart. Hart utilizes ambient noise and droning tones that color each scene with dread while also driving it forward. Much like the whine of a sitar, or a bagpipe engine, there is a constant sound, a constant tone that relentless hurdles the characters and actions toward the final curtain. Affleck’s voice-over adds to the soundtrack, whispering his dialog as if drawing his last breath.
I believe it was film producer Ed Pressman who said, “A movie is not for describing. It is for seeing.” David Lowery has made a movie that is difficult to describe, not because it is convoluted and complicated, but because it defies explanation. Saints is an experience. You sit before the screen for 96 minutes and simply surrender to it. The truths revealed are not scholastic ones that breathe understanding into characters and actions but emotional ones that linger with the willing viewer. It is set in the past but manages to keep period details to a minimum, allowing for a timeless quality. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints will look and feel just as fresh and unique in 20 years as it does today. This is a credit to the actors as much as it is to Lowery. In addition to being a writer and director, Lowery is also a prolific editor who worked with Shane Carruth on Upstream Color, another movie from this year that defies explanation. A fantastic trend in independent cinema, and I look forward to seeing what else these young auteurs have in their future.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
Written and Directed By: David Lowery
Produced By: Cassian Elwes, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Amy Kaufman, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy
Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Kennadie Smith, Jacklynn Smith
IFC Films, Running Time 96 minutes, Rated R, Released August 16, 2013.