Title: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Director: David Lowery
Major Players: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Keith Carradine
Out of five? 4
So, you’re thinking to yourself, what on earth does that title mean? According to director David Lowery, it’s a misheard line from an American folk song that he felt captured the spirit of this 1970s set elegy to the old west. The words aren’t terribly important – the feel of the song is. And it carries over into the film itself.
Latter-day wannabe Bonnie and Clydes, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) have their criminal careers cut short when they hold up a bank. Cornered by the local law, she shoots an officer but he takes the rap and goes to jail, promising to come back for her and their daughter, who is born while he’s inside. And, after several attempts to escape, he eventually keeps his promise.
I’m not alone in spotting resemblances between Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and other films. There’s shades of Badlands as the film progresses at a Terrence Malick-like pace – slow and lingering – but with the occasional jolt of violent action. And despite being set in a less than forgiving landscape, it owes much visually to the cinematography of Roger Deakins in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, with soft lighting and gentle angles creating an unexpected beauty. There’s also an element of film noir, as if it’s been touched by the Coen Brothers.
But that makes it sound completely derivative. And, while it does have echoes of other works, the movie very much has its own voice, as does Lowery himself. It’s quiet and minimal, but it’s most definitely there.
The visual narrative is pared back as far as it’ll go, partly because of Lowery’s severe editing. He only allows you to see the absolute minimum you need to understand what’s happening. There are times when he deliberately conceals an important image, saving it for later: if that’s designed to build suspense, it falls short and can even be a distraction, as you try to work out what you’re not being shown.
Lowery’s screenplay is equally sparse, so every single expression and movement counts. Nothing goes to waste and the actors have plenty to get their teeth into, with the result that the performances are pure class. Casey Affleck seems to be cornering the market in likeable but hapless bad boys and he delivers another terrific performance, mixing charm with supressed anger. Rooney Mara is equally impressive as his partner – the scenes between her and her young daughter are especially touching and believable.
The acting honours, however, go to Keith Carradine as a relic of the old west. He may be minus a stetson, but his values and attitudes are straight out of the old Texas – tough, sparing of speech, a-feared of nothing and with a strong sense of right and wrong.
A word, too, for Daniel Hart’s soundtrack, which draws heavily on local tunes to create an authentic country feel. Most effective is the rhythmic hand clapping, which really helps ramp up the tension.
Whether the Texas hills were as beautiful and romantic as they look here – even for bank robbers – is open to question. What’s less debatable is that this minimalist offering from David Lowery is full of good things and definitely worth your time.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is released in the UK on Friday, 6 September.