"Ain't them..." is how Judge Jason Panella used to start, before his English teacher slapped him with a ruler.
"People talk about regret, but I haven't got any."
Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a great throwback to New Hollywood filmmaking…but it requires some patience.
Facts of the Case
Texas Hill Country, the 1970s. Husband and wife outlaw team Bob (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone) and Ruth (Rooney Mara, The Social Network) cap off a crime spree with a shootout with the police. Bob takes all of the blame and serves time. Ruth raises their daughter under the watchful eye of father figure Skerritt (Keith Carradine, Nashville) and local cop Patrick (Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma). Bob longs to escape, but if he did…would Ruth still be there for him?
Most films in the "love on the run" subgenre seem to focus mostly on the last moments of doomed romance before the inevitable fall. But what happens next? (Or, what happens next, provided the couple is still alive?) Ain't Them Bodies Saints essentially mulls this question over for an hour and a half, pushing the Bonnie and Clyde gunplay to the periphery and focuses on internal struggles.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints was written and directed by David Lowery (don't be like me and confuse him with the songwriter for both Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker—they're not related). While this film is Lowery's second as a filmmaker, he's racked up an impressive number of film editing credits (including some fantastic work on 2013's Upstream Color, which first brought him to my attention). Ain't Them Bodies Saints is unapologetic in its influences—the most obvious is Terrence Mallick's contemporary western Badlands, which lends quite a bit of influence in both story and polish.
But Ain't Them Bodies Saints isn't a carbon copy of its forebears. Lowery does a wonderful job of paying homage while still keeping the film hand-woven; some of the typical western tropes feel tweaked just enough to feel fresh. The story is well-trod, but there are some fresh accents—this really gets hammered home when the movie starts spending more time with Ruth, who proves she isn't just some love-sick gun moll waiting for her man to break out of jail. The maturity, especially in the exploration of the day-to-day struggles folks face, is really refreshing. There's a good chance you'll have a gut feeling about how the movie is going to end; the path taken to get there might look a little new, however.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Mara and Carradine in particular stand out, and Foster gives an especially subdued performance. Some of the supporting cast, including Nate Parker (Red Tails) and Charles Baker (Breaking Bad), are memorable for such little screen time. Affleck is, for the most part, excellent, but there are a few moments where it feels like he's trying to (and failing to) evoke his character from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Again, he's mostly excellent here, but it's occasionally distracting.
IFC Films's Blu-ray release of Ain't Them Bodies Saints is excellent. The 2.40:1/1080p transfer is beautiful, and highlights the work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Pariah) well. From what I've read, Young almost exclusively uses natural lighting, and the Blu-ray captures his elegant work quite nicely. The LPCM 2.0 stereo track and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround tracks are also great, handling the nuancesâ€"footsteps, whispered wordsâ€"wonderful. They also give composer Daniel Hart's awesome ambient folk soundtrack plenty of room to stretch its legs. The disc also comes with a bunch of features: a trailer and two teasers for the film; "Untitled Ross Brothers Documentary" (13:22), which gives a nice look behind the curtain; "The Lights" (3:32), a music video for a song performed by Keith Carradine; "Behind the Scenes" (4:48); two deleted scenes and a montage of small bits left out of the final cut (8:59); and "Color Bars" (2:53) which gives a few bloopers after the actual color bars. The Blu-ray also features a whopper of an extra: St. Nick (85 minutes), Lowery's little-seen (and quite good) feature debut.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a slow film, even at 90-some minutes. And, depending on how much narrative momentum matters to you, it might be an incredible boring film. While there are a few moments of no-frills violence, the most of the movie's action happens in the characters' thoughts. The fact that the movie follows a pretty familiar narrative railroad might not help here, either. I loved it, but I can see why others (and there are definitely others) may not.
Lowery's dialogue might also be a sticking point. When it hits—which is often—it's great: elusive, poetic, never expository. But sometimes it feels unnecessarily and awkwardly ornate, especially during a few scenes in which Bob narrates. This is thankfully rare, but it's there, and it's noticeable.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a lush, poetic little film features some fine performances and proves David Lowery is going to be filmmaker to watch. The careful pacing and familiar story is going to scare away some fans, but for those of us who like the film, IFC delivers a lovely Blu-ray release.
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