Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (***)

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Rooney Mara has been in a slew of films this year. This may be her best work.

ain't them bodies saints posterAin’t Them Bodies Saints is an entrancing poem of doomed love, photographed marvelously by Bradford Young and acted with steamrolling confidence by its cast. Director David Lowery, whose shorts have drawn considerable praise in many a festival circuit, lays down the law with his third feature film. Slow but always pulsating with life, this pseudo-Western tragedy chronicles one Texas outlaw’s desperate escape from prison to reclaim the love he once had and reunite with the family he created just before his incarceration. Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) is his name and, sadly, rekindling a romance he once had but lost is his game. Affleck isn’t quite as alarmingly good here as he was in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but his gunslinger in Saints is equally obsessive if slightly less captivating. Because Muldoon is such a tunnel-visioned protagonist, ergo less complex and boringly predictable, I can’t say this role stretches Affleck to the limits moviegoers know he’s capable of reaching. He does the job well, with eyes that burn with an intense and insatiable thirst for happiness. But Lowery’s most valuable offerings are the ones you don’t see coming. Ben Foster, Rooney Mara, and Keith Carradine appropriately disrupt the tranquil moments of the film with performances that reverberate louder than ricocheted sound waves from a magnum revolver. It is because of these three that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints overcomes its long periods of lethargy.

Set during the 1970s, Lowery’s film begins with Bob Muldoon and his newlywed wife Ruth Guthrie (Mara) discussing their future, which could go one of several ways depending on what they do next. You see, the two have just robbed a bank but remain pretty ignorant of the consequences. To them, love is their shield that will protect them from any harm that comes their way. But after that euphoric state of young love dies down, the two eventually come to realize that their Bonnie and Clyde adventures are about to reach a violent conclusion. After making up their mind on the next course of action, the two lovers take refuge in an abandoned house atop the Texan hills. A standoff commences between the doomed couple and the local police force, ending with an officer (Foster) critically injured after Ruth shoots him just above the heart. Bob, devoted to his wife’s well-being at all costs (or so we’re led to believe at this point), gives himself up and falsely attests that it was he who seriously wounded Officer Patrick Wheeler.

Four years or so later, Muldoon escapes prison in the hopes of running away with Ruth and the daughter he’s never met before, Sylvie. What Muldoon doesn’t know is that Ruth has rebuilt her life for the better, wanting to push the past behind her and make sure peaceful days are ahead for her and Sylvie. With Bob’s return, the police on his tail, and prison enemies out to settle a score, Ruth knows the love she lost cannot possibly be a part of her now-stabilized life. But her heart and head don’t seem to agree, especially upon receiving Bob’s heartfelt and optimistic letters of his imminent return. Thankfully, two encouraging and patient men are there to protect Ruth and Sylvie’s best interests: Skerritt (Carradine), an adoptive father of sorts to Ruth, and the fully recovered Officer Wheeler.

Rooney Mara has been in a slew of films this year. This may be her best work.
Rooney Mara has been in a slew of films this year. This may be her best in show.

Keith Carradine is a complete revelation as Skerritt. Skerritt’s firm resolve is balanced by his tenderness of heart, and Carradine knows exactly how and when to flaunt both sides of Ruth’s protective father figure. Aside from his role as Special Agent Frank Lundy in Showtime’s Dexter, I haven’t seen such great work pour out of this veteran in years. It looks like Bruce Dern and Robert Redford aren’t the only old sports making a grand return to form this year at the movies. I see no reason why IFC Films can’t also make a push for Carradine in the “Best Supporting Actor” field. He more than justifies his comeback, especially in an extraordinary scene in which he confronts Affleck’s Muldoon in perfect, no-nonsense fashion.

I admit, I’ve struggled to really appreciate Rooney Mara as an actress. She’s undeniably strong in her craft, but her style and characters often leave me a bit cold or unsympathetic. As Ruth Guthrie in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, however, Mara has finally found a role that doesn’t suppress sensitivity or likability. Ruth is the most approachable character in Mara’s filmography from an audience standpoint, and by far the Oscar-nominated actress’ finest work to date. Mara manages to nail down young motherhood without appearing victimized or weak. She also doesn’t overplay the romantic moments; instead she simply reacts genuinely and doesn’t resort to typical wide-eyed Hollywood histrionics.

Although if any of the splendid cast can crack an Oscar® acting lineup, it would and should be the highly undervalued Ben Foster. Playing a guy that comes between two lovers that everyone is rooting for to make it would cause any actor to feel as if they’ve been given the short end of the stick. You’re character is detested by the audience from the get-go, immediately and unfairly pegged as the villain just because they’re meddling with the film’s central love story. It’s difficult to be embraced in this type of role, but Foster shatters conventions by always appealing to Wheeler’s humanity. Lowery of course deserves credit for writing such a multifaceted and empathetic anti-hero, but Foster takes what’s written on the page and makes history in the romance genre. He makes us secretly wish that the “villain” and the “good girl” hook up. His intentions are so pure, his reasoning is so right, and his love for Mara’s Ruth is so believable that you find yourself rooting for Patrick Wheeler and Ruth Guthrie to end up together. About halfway through, I stopped caring about Bob entirely since Foster evoked more decency and trustworthiness than Bob ever showed. Foster’s Wheeler is a Southern gentleman without any kind of affectation. Although his duty to the law puts him in direct opposition with Bob, and by association Ruth, Foster pretty early on gives you an indication that he’ll always do what’s morally correct. Whatever that means, you know you can live with it no matter the avenue taken. Foster is that convincing as Wheeler, and he would make my “Best Supporting Actor” list today if asked to finalize my choices for the year.

Ben Foster is the best he's even been in 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints.' An Academy Award nomination shouldn't be far behind.
Ben Foster churns out a career best in ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.’ Is an Academy Award® nomination on its way?

There is also one last person I have to give kudos to for making Ain’t Them Bodies Saints such a different yet rewarding cinematic experience. Thanks to Bradford Young’s distinctly unique cinematography, the sprawling Texan farmland and untamed wilderness are given beautiful duality and dimension. On the one hand, they represent the comfort of home, stability and peace. But they also take on an ominous, mistrustful form. The land becomes a place of horrific memories and deadly standoffs. Young’s shot and focus variations amplify this paradox, with the central characters themselves losing their own humanity by way of remaining stuck in this prison they feel comfortable calling “home.” Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is concerned with the tragedy of complacency, duty, and self-sacrifice. It’s easy to dismiss these themes as a case of pure Southern stubbornness, but because there are so many shades of grey in the story, you feel just as conflicted and confused as these characters are, not knowing what you yourself would do if trapped in their shoes.

Lowery is a fine director and a wonderful storyteller, but now that he’s found his spotlight and is staying there, I do hope his next film ups the budget and gets a little more liberal in the editing room. The action scenes, while perfectly satisfactory, don’t have that same punch or energy as those glorious shootouts from the Western heydays. Furthermore, the film is guilty of meandering more often than it should. Instead of strengthening the characterizations, especially the dull Bob Muldoon, Lowery gets a little too lost in the woods for his own good. Still, it’s pretty difficult to argue the visual and thematic beauty on display in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, even if the sluggish pace could induce a temporary coma to some. With performances that sizzle with subtle power and cinematography that creates an instantly recognizable tone and mood, Lowery’s deftly directed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a Western that aims for the heart and finds its mark.

IFC Films’ Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is out today, August 16th, in limited release. Los Angeles residents can see the film this weekend at The Landmark in West Los Angeles. The film will also hit various VOD platforms on August 23rd. Check out the trailer below!