Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Should art challenge us? Can we just let ourselves be taken by its emotional implications? These are some of the questions that revolve around “Ain’t them bodies saints,” a picturesque, if sometimes vexing, new film headed for the cineplex next Friday.

The seventies somewhere in Hill Country Texas; grasslands, the occasional canyon, cities. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play the outlaw Bob Muldoon and his wife, Ruth Guthrie; two characters who come across as a kind of a Bonnie & Clyde. They surrender during a shootout. Muldoon gets twenty-five years in jail although Ruth, who’s pregnant, is released. The two are emotionally dependent on each other as we discover through their letter-writing but Ruth, now with a new daughter, recognizes that she needs to move on. Will Muldoon succeed in seeing his family again? The plot revolves around three points of interest, each articulated through one character: the villain (Muldoon eventually escapes from jail), the wife and accomplice, and the local cop (played by Ben Foster) hellbent on a strict reading of the law and removing the thorn from his side (namely, Bob Muldoon).

Now that each character has been established the rest of “Saints” is spent waiting to see if Muldoon will get together with his wife again. Not much happens besides this, director David Lowery taking poetic license with what is a classic cops-vs-bad-guys premise, but with compelling results.  Sure, this isn’t your story treatment. An inherent sense of doom rules the day, the characters of Muldoon and Guthrie affecting a kind of mournful melancholy. This much intensity can be frustrating at times. So, cross out the crackling repartees and the witty put-downs from your wish list: the payoff of “Saints” is in its visual power, the rural lyricism of Hill Country Texas, how characters take up the entire frame as if in an iconography. Let’s not beat around the bush, however: “Ain’t them bodies saints” left a very strong impression on me.

David Lowery (“Deadroom,” “St. Nick”) a native Texan living in Dallas has only recently been garnering attention for his work, even though he’s been in the profession all his life, first as editor and now also as filmmaker.

Like many others he started out as an editor to make ends meet. “What I’ve learned as a director has come largely from editing,” he’s said in an interview.” A typical effect of style used by Lowery in his films is what happens in between phrases, like the silences and the glances. His previous film “St. Nick” had a total of about five minutes of dialogue in it. “Saints” is a big step up in terms of speech, however.

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Lowery, who professes an influence from as diverse a lot as James Benning, Robert Altman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, has a lot going for himself: he is the thinking-man’s director (you might say a director’s director), a film professional who has devoted his life to the medium and writes about it exhaustively on a blog; he consumes a heavy and varied diet of films every week (because you can’t be a great filmmaker unless you’ve seen every movie that’s been made), and he’s a Texan (that fascinating and magnificent American state that sometimes unjustly gets a bad rap). Many exterior signs that portend well.

“Ain’t them bodies saints” was shot in Louisiana and Texas, was first shown at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Cinematography Award in the U.S. Dramatic Category and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. “Saints” was also selected to compete in the International Critics’ Week section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Ali Naderzad is the founder of Screen Comment. Follow him here: @alinaderzad

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