Release Date: August 16th, 2013 (Limited)
Director: David Lowery
MPAA Rating: NR
Film Pulse Score: 10/10
[This is a repost of our review from the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival]
David Lowery has a major American film on his hands in his third feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Lowery has directed two features and a handful of shorts, but has done significant work as an editor, which inherently informs his aesthetic as a director. At first glance, the film harkens so close to Malick’s sensibilities, one senses the threat of a derivative tone, however the story is so gripping that from the onset one barely has time to make the limiting though obvious comparison. Lowery poignantly reaches for a filmic language which has over the years been canonized, and uses the gravity of that language to dust his film with space and presence in favor of continuous action.
While some might find this to be a weakness in the film, what Lowery recognizes in this decision is that the contemporary audience can ‘read’ films with more skill than traditional continuity demands. It is not necessary to lay everything out for the audience to witness, it’s even preferable to allow some of the film to feel like memory, a segment of time which doesn’t relate to the forward progression but will inform our attachment to the emotions of the characters. A good balance between action and poetic space is precisely what makes a challenge for a character so deep for an audience to witness. This dynamic is well at play but not overstated in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s what makes your breath heavy from the very beginning, leading you down the path to an inevitable conclusion that would just play out in a hollow fashion if approached too directly. A story like this needs to wind and weave, not push and prod.
The cinematography of Bradford Young is so gripping it sweeps you quickly up into Lowery’s intentions and firmly carves out a filmic haven of its own. From the very first scene, it takes up space in both your heart and your guts, capturing an absolutely stellar cast with delicacy and depth. Rooney Mara’s performance as Ruth is comparable to clenching a bird in a fist, she is simultaneously struggling to be free, but unable to let go enough to move forward. She carries a guilt with her that is soft and weary, rather than desperate, with a stunning sense of realism grounding her character. Casey Affleck’s boyishness serves him in playing Bob, allowing for a naive but driven passion in his character. Affleck’s superb performance is not only well balanced to Mara’s, but it is decidedly haunting.
There is an inherent contrast in the somber nature of Ruth’s life, and Bob’s romantic need for connection on the inside. The pressure this builds in the film is a slow building emotional steam engine, and the unravelling of intentions in the rest of the cast only puts more coal on the fire. This is a film where past sins, unspoken, return in all forms, to be reconciled in one way or another. Justice and balance are not necessarily synonymous, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints will only serve to remind you that so much is true. While some may leave the theater and argue that not much has actually happened in this film, others will leave so filled up that they are bursting at the seams. This is one stunning film, period.