Michael Welles Schock

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Poor grammar, rich emotion.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Poor grammar, rich emotion.
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With sympathetic characters and a dramatic premise, David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints packs a lot of heartbreak into a simple plot.

by Michael Welles Schock

There is no better way to express an ideal than to contrast it with its harshest opposite. We can best know joy by first knowing anguish. We can fully understand compassion only when it stands side-by-side with cruelty. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the second feature film of writer/director David Lowery and selection of this year’s Sundance and Canne film festivals, is a film about love. And it shows the depths of love with a story about pain. The pain of separation. The pain of loneliness. Each taken to extremes.

Casey Affleck as Bob Muldoon in Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Casey Affleck as Bob Muldoon in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Labeled a “contemporary Western” (taking place in ’70s Texas), Saints is about Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara), a young couple who take part in small-time felonies—married, madly in love and expecting a child. When Ruth shoots a deputy, Bob takes the blame. After agonizing years in prison, Bob escapes with one goal in mind: to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met. Unfortunately, there is a twist. Lonely Ruth has caught the affections of Patrick (Ben Foster), a lovelorn soul in his own right. Ironically, Patrick is the same deputy involved in the fateful shootout years before. This places Patrick as a man-in-the-middle of not only Bob’s flight from the law, but his chances for reunion with Ruth. Personally, I love this premise. It is what drew me to review this film over the four major releases rolled out this weekend. This is what I consider high-concept in a small package: strong, simple, rooted in real emotion and containing implicit conflict set to unfold. Anyone who wishes to craft a character drama that grabs attention should take heed.

Rooney Mara as Ruth Guthrie in Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Rooney Mara as Ruth Guthrie in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Empathy rides high in Lowrey’s writing. There is no more painful kind of love than a love than cannot be, and Lowrey applies this emotional torture to all three of his leads. He pours Bob’s guts out in every letter he writes Ruth—a running motif that comes off heartbreakingly, never maudlin. The pain is only worsened after Bob’s escape when Bob is ordered to stay away from Ruth or face dire consequence by their father-figure Skerrit (a well-drawn character played by David Carridine). Ruth’s pain, on the other hand, is delivered more quietly. As Ruth lavishes attention on her and Bob’s daughter Sylvia, it is apparent that her dotage comes not just from love, but sadness. Sylvia is her world because she has been left with no one else. Even when news comes of Bob’s escape, it gives Ruth no solace, because—though she only once admits it—Ruth knows if Bob does return there is no way she could go with him.

Ben Foster as Patrick Wheeler in Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Ben Foster as Patrick Wheeler in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Though drawn more weakly than the other leads, Lowery should also be commended for not making Patrick an unsympathetic heel. Patrick stands to take away both Bob’s love and his freedom, but there is no malice within him. Through subtle details, it is clear that Patrick’s interest in Ruth has nothing to do with Bob or his affiliation with the law. Instead, Patrick’s motivation comes from a universal place—the urge to carve out a little happiness in life by connecting with another human being, as difficult as that may be. There are no clear winners in Saints. Each of Lowery’s leads has been created to break your heart.

Something must be said about plot structure, however. In my previous reviews, I called Pacific Rim cluttered for attempting too many subplots. I criticized 2 Guns for trying to cram too many lines of action into too short a film. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has no such problems. Its plot is clear and simple, allowing ample room to build character and theme. Yet it begs the question over how much plot is too much, and how little is too little. Saint’s beginning is tight and moves swiftly with turning points every eight minutes. But after its midpoint, tension begins to wane as the story situation fails to complicate much from what has already been established. The subplots bring conflict and develop action (most prominently at the hands of some former acquaintances of Bob’s looking for payback), but the main lines of the plot stagnate. With no direct contact between Bob and Ruth, nothing can develop within their relationship. The Ruth/Patrick line plateaus for a long period as well. This is a shame, since a couple extra dramatic turns in these areas would give Saints the shot in the arm it needs in the late second half to emotionally intensify its climax and put the film over the top.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints opened this weekend in only three theaters nationwide. Hopefully, a wider release will follow to give more audiences a chance to take it in. If you reside in New York or Los Angeles, I recommend you seek it out. After a summer of shrill, noisy blockbusters, it is nice to once again find powerful drama in something as simple as a good premise and strong human emotion.

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