Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"

Lyrical and bare bones, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is the sort of movie Terrence Malick made early in his career, where mood and imagery trump narrative and dialogue. Writer/director David Lowery is already more than a dozen years deep into his feature film career, but this movie has the aspect of a debut -- of a voice that is not new but now comes to the fore with a confident, compelling tone.

“Saints” is the sort of story we’ve heard before: a desperate man driven to extreme acts in the pursuit of something good and pure. In this case, a convict breaks out of prison so he can be reunited with his wife and the daughter he’s never met. But the way Lowery invests the tale with emotional weight and a lingering sense of portent, it takes on the feel of a small Homeric epic.

Even at a sleek 96 minutes, the movie has a sense of sprawl and languidness. While some might find the film indulgent, I hardly ever felt like the cast and crew were treading water.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara bring a genuine, sad quality to their performances as Bob and Ruth, two lovers separated for nearly five years while Bob is imprisoned. It’s endemic to Lowery’s style of storytelling that we never learn precisely what crime was committed, other than it involved a suitcase full of cash and the involvement of some shady characters, who will later return.

What we do know is that during a shootout with police, Bob’s partner was killed and Ruth shot and wounded a sheriff’s deputy. Bob takes the rap so she and their unborn daughter can remain free.

Their relationship continues as something heartfelt and almost mystical, in that it survives only through their imagination. Bob pens daily, emphatic letters declaring his everlasting love – both for her sake and his own. His sense of himself as more than just another outlaw is what sustains him.

In many ways Ruth’s sentence is harsher than his, since she must continue living in the same small dusty Texas town they came from, raising a little girl in the midst of a community that looks askance upon them.

Brooding right next door is Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a local shopkeeper and father figure to both Bob and Ruth. It was his own son who was killed during the botched getaway that sent Bob to prison, so he isn’t thrilled at the prospect of his return.

Complicating things further is that wounded deputy, Patrick Wheeler (the always-excellent Ben Foster), who looks in on Ruth out of a sense of duty and finds himself drawn in by her tragic gravity. As word of Bob’s escape makes the rounds, it appears as if their trio of fates are hurtling toward each other like runaway steam engines.

“Saints” is simply a gorgeous picture of sights and sounds, and full credit goes to cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Daniel Hart for their craftsmanship. There are long, nearly wordless stretches in the film where the photography and music carry us, and there’s a rhythmic cadence to these sequences that is infectious.

Set in the late 1960s to early ‘70s, the movie seems both defined by its era and timeless. This tale could just as easily be transplanted to the 1920s with a quick change of cars and clothes.

Some movies are pushed along by their plot, while a few are content to lay back and explore characters and settings. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is noteworthy less for what it says than the evocative way it goes about saying it.

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