Review: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'

This review was originally published on January 21, 2013 as part of's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints," the new feature from writer-director David Lowery starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster, is a moody, evocative love triangle that is simultaneously mournful and gorgeous. It is also, and this is putting it politely, a patient film that deliberately focuses on the pauses between action. While the sun-dappled images are cut to a mesmerizing banjo and cello score, one has to face facts that the bulk of what's actually on screen are mostly shots of people looking sullen and talking around the topic. The film is challenging, but those that give it close attention will be rewarded with a fulfilling emotional climax. And they'll eventually figure out how all the side characters figure into it, too. Maybe art should always be a little frustrating.

While set in the 1970s, it has the spirit of the 1930s. Affleck and Mara play Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, two characters that start off as something of a Bonnie & Clyde (or maybe the characters from Altman's "Thieves Like Us") and surrender during a shootout. Bob is sentenced to 25 years in prison, though pregnant Ruth is released. Through letters, we come to understand just how emotionally dependent Bob is on Ruth, but watching Ruth and their new daughter integrate back into society, we recognize she must eventually move to a new chapter in her life.

Foster is Patrick Wheeler, a good guy local cop with ties to the case and a would-be father figure to the now 5-year-old girl. His cycle of hesitancy is broken when Bob escapes prison, with the obvious intention of coming for his family.

The bulk of the film, really, is just waiting for Bob and Ruth to finally see one another again. Along the way there's a lot of moody talking to characters whose connection, thanks to Lowery's close-to-the-vest style, isn't readily clear. Among them is scene-stealer Keith Carradine as Skerritt, whose sullen visage seems always on the brink of violence.

I could delineate all the final act's reveals, but they wouldn't mean a thing. The point of this film is the spell it weaves and, by and large, it is successful. It's the music, it's the cinematography, it's the score, it's Casey Affleck's hollow speaking voice — they all add up to something that resembles a fever dream facsimile of an eventful movie. Let me be clear: Damn near nothing happens during the film, but after a long enough exposure to them, you will feel for the characters, as if by emotional osmosis.

In the mid '90s, every second director thought he was the next Quentin Tarantino. We got hammered with movies like "Suicide Kings," "Seek and Destroy" and "Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead." With the cult of Terrence Malick at an all-time fever pitch amongst cineastes with rarefied tastes, it's possible we're about to see a number of would-be auteurs who think they can pull off their own "Tree of Life" or "The New World." (That Malick himself has recently stumbled with the yet-unreleased "To The Wonder" isn't gonna stop 'em.) "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is nowhere near "Tree of Life" caliber, and comparisons to "Badlands" are silly — that is a hardcore action film in contrast. However, it is still something of a rarity to find yourself moved by a film that takes such pains to keep you at an intellectual distance. David Lowery is, no question, a talent worth watching.

SCORE: 8.0 / 10

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