News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

September 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 06--As the arcane phrasing of its title suggests, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" might be a folk song or murder ballad in movie form. As timeless, evocative and mysterious as a heartbreaking song lyric, it is a saga of undying outlaw love distilled to its emotional essence, as if it were something to be inhaled or applied to the skin, to work at the level of the blood and bypass the cynical defenses of the intellect, as music often does.

Folk -- or at least folksy -- music is sometimes present in fact as well as theme. A deputy strums a guitar and croons hopeful lyrics to a little girl and her mother: "You are all the treasure that I been searchin' for ..." His farewell to his

audience is polite, archaic: "I bid you good night." Fiddles frequently are heard on the soundtrack, and a pursuit and shootout is scored with a rhythmic clip-clop, as if accompanying a buck dance or clogging exhibition.

A briefly glimpsed newspaper clipping refers to the story's central couple as a "bank-robbing Romeo and Juliet." The movie "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) was scored with old-timey music, too, but David Lowery, the writer-director of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," isn't particularly interested in Arthur Penn-style violence. He doesn't even show us the robbery that sets his story in motion; he's not interested in the bullets but the wounds, physical and otherwise.

The experience of the film is immersive, poetic, somewhat abstract, for all the attention to detail of the warm, dusty, tactile cinematography of Bradford Young ("Pariah," "Mississippi Damned"), working with 35mm film (rather than with digital video, as is the norm these days for low-budget independent productions). Characters sometimes whisper, and their words are indistinct; Lowery is similarly withholding. "This happened in Texas" announces an opening title card; the past tense indicates a place in time that proves even less specific than the geography.

The film's withholding nature is appropriate. "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is essentially a story about waiting and separation. The frustrated lovers are Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck), introduced as small-time outlaws in rural Texas in the early 1970s (judging from the cars and technology; the fiddle music suggests an earlier decade). Film buffs will think of "Badlands" and other Terrence Malick films, as well as Robert Altman's "Thieves Like Us," a likely intentional reference: That movie starred Keith Carradine, who appears in Lowery's film as a retired crime boss and surrogate father to Ruth and Bob. (Alternately grim and wry, Carradine is excellent.)

At almost the start of the film, Bob is arrested and sent to prison after he takes the fall for the shooting of a stoic young deputy (Ben Foster). He promises to keep loving the pregnant Ruth, and to return home. "We always just been ... two parts of the same," he says. Ruth, apparently, agrees. Four years later, Ruth has a very adorable daughter (played by twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) and an unacknoweledged suitor in the deputy when she learns that Bob has escaped and is likely heading her way.

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is built on the idea that the Ruth and Bob have a fateful, almost supernatural bond, yet the movie works to keep them apart, even when Bob is close enough to peer through Ruth's window. At one point, Bob exchanges whistles with a bird, as if in literal communication with nature. He's a self-mythologizer, concocting an elaborate fable to explain his escape that we are all too ready to believe until it's exposed. He seems to apprehend at some level that he occupies a movie, while others still believe in a "real" world. In a movie, time is plastic and unstable and generous; "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" uses editing to suggest the simultaneity of events that happen years apart, reminding us that even this insignificant parcel of Texas belongs to a cosmic whole. The movie hints at but does not detail the characters' back stories, creating the impression that we have been watching lives that were vital before the film began and that will continue after the end credits roll. This is a much more potent brand of "realism" than one finds in a more traditional film that insists on coloring in every detail of its characters' lives.

A Texan, like Malick, Lowery has emerged with this startling film from the exploratory sprawl of the so-called "mumblecore" movement, which provided a training ground for the do-it-yourself, often semi-autobiographical work of many young filmmakers. He continues to be a prolific editor, cutting such recent acclaimed indies as "Upstream Color" and "Sun Don't Shine."

Lowery was in Memphis in 2009 to handle sound and other duties on Kentucker Audley's "Open Five," which was shot by fellow auteur Joe Swanberg. (Audley appears in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" in the brief but pivotal role of one of Bob's cohorts.) Also in 2009, Lowery screened his wonderful feature, "St. Nick," at the Indie Memphis Film Festival. A modern fable about a pair of runaway children who try to create an independent life in an abandoned house (and perhaps a metaphor for the indie filmmaking impulse), "St. Nick" might be a test run for much of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," also motivated to some extent by a yearning for family and security. In one scene in the new film, the deputy, visiting Ruth in her modest home, plays absent-mindedly with a toy house that might be a mockery of his own doomed domestic dreams. The toy is both complement and contrast to the abandoned and collapsing farmhouse where the fugitive Bob seeks refuge.

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(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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