Film as a commercial medium, especially in the modern film world, can overshadow film as an art form. With big money and big stars comes big expectations, so there are times that filmmakers have to make compromises to their visions in order to make something that will appeal to a large number of people.
It’s not often that an independent filmmaker like Dallas writer/director David Lowery can secure a starry cast and remain true to himself, but Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is one of those rare situations. It follows Bob and Ruth (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), two Texas outlaws separated when Bob takes the fall for their crime spree. It then becomes Bob’s sole mission to somehow make it back to Ruth, no matter what obstacle lies in his way.
The film is one where not much seems to happen even though there’s a lot going on.
That sounds like the plot to a crackerjack thriller, but Lowery is not interested in telling that kind of story. Taking inspiration from movies like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Bonnie and Clyde, Saints contains the essence of those films but leaves the crime part almost completely out.
Instead, the film, in Lowery’s words, luxuriates in the aftermath of the crime, seeing how the separation affects Bob, Ruth and others in town. That includes Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the father of an accomplice, and Patrick (Ben Foster), a policeman involved in a shootout with them who does a poor job at hiding his affection for Ruth.
Consequently, the film is one where not much seems to happen even though there’s a lot going on. Lowery takes his time, teasing out the inevitable Bob and Ruth reunion for as long as possible. You come to understand that Lowery is more interested in setting an overall mood for the film — arty and somber — than delivering moments you normally expect in the crime/western genre.
This type of filmmaking is not for everybody, and even those who proclaim to like it may find the goings to be a bit slow. But the benefit of it is that every main actor gets to showcase his or her skills. You may not understand why Lowery takes so damn long to get the point, but at least you can appreciate his wisdom in choosing the actors he did.
The film is also one of the more beautiful ones you’re likely to see this year. Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young have a knack for using light and shadows in such a way that they speak volumes for a particular scene, even when little is being said.
So, yes, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is more art than commerce, but by touching on the familiar themes of previous like-minded films, it still gives more than enough for the average movie-goer to enjoy.
Editor's Note: Read CultureMap's exclusive interview with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery here.