Setting aside the clunky and cumbersome title, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a beautifully sparse and moving film.
Writer and director David Lowery made a splash with this movie at the Sundance Film Festival and has proven himself as a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.
Lowery is clearly a fan of Terrence Malick, what with his lingering camera shots and all the filming during the magic hour, but he also has his own voice as “Saints” is a much more direct movie than the wandering splendor of Malick’s work.
The plot is thin and familiar, packed with echoes of movies like “Night of the Hunter” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”
The fantastic cast is led by the trio of Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster. Set in central Texas at an indeterminate time in the 1960s that can only be guessed at, Affleck and Mara play Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, two young lovers with nothing better to do than rob a few banks.
After a shootout with police at an old farm, Bob takes the rap and goes to jail, leaving Ruth pregnant and under the watchful eye of his sketchy, adoptive father Skerritt (Keith Carradine).
Years pass and Ruth is now raising a little girl on her own, receiving letters professing undying love from Bob and visits from kindly police officer Patrick Wheeler (Foster), who has taken an interest in Ruth and her daughter (all without knowing it was Ruth who shot him in the shoulder during the shootout that led to Bob’s arrest).
The tense balance of everyone’s lives is thrown into upheaval when Bob escapes from prison, intent on returning to the family from which he has been separated.
What makes “Saints” a great movie, other than the fact that it is sublimely shot and wonderfully acted, is how much it doesn’t say.
A lesser movie would have paid much more attention to Bob’s life of crime or his early romance with Ruth, but since “Saints” begins with Bob’s arrest, it is enough to know that Bob did some bad things and he and Ruth passionately loved each other.
What the movie is really about is how people change and don’t change over time and how much we let our past dictate our future.
There are a few problems with this movie. It’s a tad pretentious (see the title) and the plot is undoubtedly conventional, but everything else works so well that these shortcomings are greatly overshadowed.
What might be most exciting about the movie are the promising futures for the talent both in front and behind the camera. Affleck is the salty veteran here and Mara already got our attention in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” so I would like to give a little shout-out to Foster, who just might be the most unappreciated actor working in Hollywood today.
Known for playing lowlifes and introverts, Foster is one of those guys who is just one meaty role away from being a headliner. He’s terrific here as the movie’s moral compass and there is a real tenderness to his performance.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a well-made film, plain and simple; and it easily cracks my way, way, way too early Top Ten of 2013 list. It is well worth venturing down to the art houses to check out.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is rated R for some violence.