I remember David Lowery from the 2009 St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). He gave a Q&A after screening his first full-length feature, St. Nick. Since then, he has edited two of my favorite films from this year (Upstream Color and Sun Don’t Shine). Now, he has also directed one of my favorite films this year: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
Lowery has clearly learned a lot since St. Nick, probably thanks in no small part to his experience working with Shane Carruth on Upstream Color. Saints feels more structured, but at the same time, more inquisitive than his first film. It begins with a robbery by lovers Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) that ends up botched in an abandoned barn. We later discover how important this barn is to Bob when he’s busted out of jail and begins to return to Ruth, who was acquitted. He’s desperate to see his three-year-old daughter for the first time and he’s obviously mad about Ruth. He’s hidden his thousands on the same plot of land where the barn stands. He thinks he can set up his idea of heaven: Bob and Ruth, without a criminal record, somewhere free, forever. Lowery wisely doesn’t telegraph anything about whether or not Bob will achieve his goal, so as an audience member, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop for most of the film. That’s not to say that the middle of the film is laborious or navel-gazing; far from it. We’re drawn into the film’s world as we meet policeman Patrick (Ben Foster), the man assigned to protect Ruth and her daughter. He takes a liking to them right off the bat, and one of the best scenes in the movie is when he admits his feelings for Ruth. We also meet Skerritt (Keith Carradine), somewhat of a local vigilante who we learn has practically raised Ruth and Bob. When Bob returns to him and tells him of his plans, Skerritt more than firmly requests he stay away from Ruth. Bob is determined, though. He dodges the law (including Patrick in a very tense scene) on multiple occasions in his quest.
It’s a delicate line this film has to walk, which it ultimately succeeds in walking. Either you’ll root for Bob, or you’ll root for the men Skerritt’s hired to go after him because if they succeed, Bob can’t cause Ruth any trouble. But by picking the latter, you’re giving a thumbs-down to a character that is eminently likeable. Affleck is dazzling here, giving Bob just the right amount of naïveté and just the right amount of panache. He’s almost like a disaffected 1930s gangster who’s still got that one job left.
Mara, whom I’ve gushed about on several occasions, gives just as amazing a performance as we’ve come to expect from her. She’s asked to do less here than in Dragon Tattoo or Side Effects, but her performance fits those parameters. She’s disaffected too, but you’re never quite sure of her true feelings about the Bob question. That’s the other bit of tension that bubbles to the surface in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. If you’re an active viewer, your question to Ruth through most of the film should be ‘do you still love him?’ That’s what’s so brilliant about this movie. It takes the lovers-on-the-lam formula and turns it on its head in subtle ways, fitting the formula into a more realistic mold, asking searing questions that may or may not have easy answers.
This is one of the best westerns to hit screens since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I am in awe of how much David Lowery has grown as a director and writer since I saw him last.
(P.S. The original score by Daniel Hart is magnificent.)