There is a very rare and specific kind of cinematic alchemy, one which takes the sciences of cinematography, editing, performance, script, score, and story and uses them into a conjure a complete artifact of beauty and significance. Rather than just mixing together, each facet of the film seems to click and meld with all the others, creating a flawless, seamless piece of pure art. It’s lightening in a bottle. It is something seemingly impossible. It is energizing and exciting and lovely.
Without a doubt, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, you are one of those singular and almost terrifyingly well-realized films. You claim a rarified air, a summit from which you can see almost the entirety of the filmic landscape.
Your tale opens with the deceptively simple prologue, “This was in Texas,” which serves your narrative on many subtle ways. It evokes a feeling, an intense longing for the simplicity and spiritual grandeur of a campfire story or an older-timer’s tale. It anchors us in a place, but not in a time, and carries with it the archaic bluntness of finality and completion. There is mystery to those words, and a forlorn sense of something lost, like an old tragic tale whose end was known but unspoken until now.
Now, primed for a strange and lovely tale echoing out of the hills of Texas, we meet Bob and Ruth (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), as they meander through the scrubs and trees, the sun beaming so brightly it threatens to blind the world. They playfully tease one another, reasserting their commitment and love before Ruth lets Bob know that she is pregnant, news which elates her devoted companion. Montage and the interlaced spectacle of comforting memory shuttle us through their period of adjustment to the idea of having a child. We see Bob speaking to his love’s belly, making promises to the baby who he cannot wait to share and love with Ruth.
Sadly, Bob and Ruth live on the wrong side of the law, and when the sheriff’s deputies finally catch up with them, Bob winds up in a cell while Ruth is offered a reprieve from judgment and relegated to a life waiting for the day she can introduce her daughter, Sylvie, to her father. She lives in a house bought for her by her and Bob’s former benefactor, Mr. Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a local businessman left confounded by his wards’ choices.
From here the tale moves forward with the elegant tone and beauty of a poetic elegy. David Lowery, your writer and director, evinces an innate talent for tone and performance and narrative rhythm. Light and camera movement evoke a contemplative sadness, while performance and dialogue root the characters even further into their small town lives and specific geography. The sense of place and the feeling of time and space you create is palpable, so much so that even just the recollection wraps me in a sense of longing, as though I’d been long separated from a place to which I wish to return.
Of course in a tale like this, rooted as it is in feeling and sensation, the performances are what really breathe life into the story. Casey Affleck makes Bob an embodiment of careless and careening optimism, steadfast in his belief that the simple and overpowering nature of his love will be enough to guide him and Ruth out of the valley of unhappiness in which their crimes have landed them. Ruth, meanwhile, finds herself consumed with love for her daughter, unable to even attempt to describe the sensation to Bob in letters, opting instead to simply break contact with him so that one day he might experience it on his own.
Around them is a cast of similarly capable actors bringing depth and feeling to parts that might otherwise operate as simple digressions of the plot. Carradine comports himself with knowing depth as the enigmatic Skerritt, while Nate Parker turns Bob’s friend and accomplice Sweetie from your average sidekick to a conflicted and laudable figure.
Then there is Ben Foster, whose turn as Patrick Wheeler becomes what could be considered the heart of the film. Wheeler is a deputy, one who was injured in the initial arrest of Bob and Ruth, and his continued connection to Ruth is played straight, never being used to gin up false tension or an unexpected twist, and instead functioning as just another glimpse at what happiness and contentment could be. He is the mirror of all of Bob’s character and manners and love, but without the stain of criminality.
These people, these actors creating these characters with so much shimmering and muddied depth to them, add to the lush and almost overpowering cinematography to create a visual and emotional feast for any viewer. Buoyed by the powerful score and paced with the mounting tension but even rhythm of a terrible and memory-fueled dream, you become a film that both lifts and mellows the viewer. A rare gem, you leave us loving and yet still learning about your characters up until the very last frame.
The tangible reality of a memory blended with the beauty and flow of a dream, laden with the honesty of grounded yet impassioned performance, and a narrative with the focus and clarity of a well-honed novella. In a season seemingly bereft of feeling or thought, bloated by needlessly complex webs of plot, and weighed down by scads of CGI and pyrotechnic bluster, what more could a weary traveler across the cinematic wilderness ask for?
Bound and determined to see you again,
Brian J. Roan