Sundance Review: “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

There is a certain hypnotic power in David Lowery’s films, which I have written about before (as with his debut feature, St. Nick). His films exude a tension and danger that is larger than any element in them—his characters are quiet and simply drawn, but you sense depth and passion in them; his filmmaking is subtle and understated, but there’s an energy in every shot; his stories are focused and direct, but they contain grandeur.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints begins with a trancelike fugue, as two young lovers fight in a sunset field, coo to each other in a parked pickup truck, and are suddenly thrust into a gunfight in an old farmhouse. A jail term for him, a baby for her, years of aching separation, an escape . . . and then the stately story begins. Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) is on a quest to reunite with Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara). In early scenes with a noble friend who agrees to hide him, Muldoon is vague about whether he’s going to fetch Ruth. But there’s something in his eyes, a look into the distance and future, something in his movements that belie a controlled flame of desire. Seeing that, his journey to reunite with Ruth feels inevitable, fated, yet desperate and fraught.

When Muldoon stops by a hardware store owned by his old mentor Skerrit (Keith Carradine), the old man’s attempts to scare off Muldoon only ignite the fuse. And yet, one can never be fully sure of his motives and desires. Another man, the local sheriff once shot by Ruth, is moving steadily in, played with stunning naïve charm by a thickly-mustachioed Ben Foster. And the weight of domesticity and threat of danger is perhaps more than the romantic desperado adventures Muldoon once thought he wanted. So what he wants remains perhaps unclear—as unclear as real life—until his dying day.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints represents a form of near-magical realism, so vivid and detailed and intense as to seem dreamlike. The romance is whispered in the past, and the violence happens so fast you’re bleeding before you know someone fired. (Subtle visual effects were aided through the Rooftop Filmmakers’ Fund and Edgeworx Post-Production Grant.) The film is a post-modern Western, where good and evil are distinctly unclear, and where the greatest threat is the taming of the frontier and the loss of the very idea of wildness and freedom. Ain’t Them Bodies is a nuanced and powerful picture from one of independent cinema’s bold young visionaries. I look forward to sharing it with audiences at Rooftop Films this summer.