Claiming that David Lowery’s exquisitely accomplished feature, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” is a mere imitation of Terrence Malick is about as shallow as labeling “There Will Be Blood” as a by-the-numbers rip-off of Kubrick. Sure, Lowery’s rapturous magic hour imagery (expertly lensed by “Pariah” DP Bradford Young) may have a loose yet painterly quality to it, but it never feels borrowed or derivative. The fingerprints visible on every frame of this elegiac opus are entirely Lowery’s own.
If anything, Lowery’s work has been distinguished by a poetic texture often conveyed through editing. Two of this year’s most unforgettably potent indies, Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” and Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine,” were co-edited by Lowery and each film’s respective director. Both pictures deftly juxtapose parallel timelines to illustrate how past indiscretions are inextricably linked with the events of the present. This technique allows time itself to appear both frenzied and motionless, as if the character’s lives are flashing before our eyes.
In “Saints,” editors Craig McKay (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Jane Rizzo (“Compliance”) masterfully conform to Lowery’s signature sensibilities, as they allow the tragically broken romance between an outlaw, Bob (Casey Affleck, voice quaking), and his wife, Ruth (Rooney Mara), to unfold in the past and present simultaneously. The far-away look that materializes on Ruth’s face as she tenderly embraces Bob’s head in her lap suggests that she could sense their fate even when they were at their closest. Torn apart by law enforcement and unfortunate circumstance, Bob and Ruth are forced to live a sort of melancholy half-life while wistfully awaiting the day of their unlikely reunion.
When a kind-hearted police officer (beautifully played by Ben Foster) seeks to win her heart, Ruth keeps him at arm’s length, replying that she feels “tired.” This line is emblematic of the picture’s lulling, hypnotic tone, conveying the fatigue of a heart exhausted from aching. The picture moves slow more often than it does not, but never once is it dull. Like Andrei Tarkovsky or Patrick Wang, Lowery loves to explore the ways in which a shot can evolve before the audience’s very eyes. Consider the moment when Bob is ominously followed while on the road. The headlights of his faceless stalker momentarily blind Bob (and the viewer) before the car moves in front of him, flooding the screen in a foreboding red glow. It’s a symphony of light, texture and tone that illuminates for us the mounting storm of anxiety brewing within Bob’s paranoid psyche.
If there is anything in this picture destined to stand the test of time, it is the utterly marvelous score by first-time feature composer Daniel Hart. Some have already dismissed it as a copy of Nick Cave, the famed rocker who memorably co-wrote the Oscar-worthy score for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (also featuring an equally sleepy-eyed Affleck). I’d say that such claims are, in fact, a testament to the majesty of Hart’s work, which is certainly worthy of Cave but far from a replica. Hart’s score effortlessly shifts between conflicting emotions like a mood ring, capturing the exhilaration of a morning sky and the bitter chill of a sudden wind gust often within the same breath. Add to that a brand new song sung by the guy who made his film debut getting shot on a bridge in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and you’ve got a western no cinephile can afford to miss.
Below you’ll find my recent chat with Michael Phillips on the Chicago Tribune web show, “Reel Thursdays,” in which we discussed “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” along with Courtney Solomon’s “Getaway” and John Crowley’s “Closed Circuit.” My two cents: see “Saints,” avoid “Getaway” and rent “Circuit” along with Crowley’s superior 2007 effort, “Boy A,” featuring a shattering performance from Andrew Garfield.