The use of “Powerhouse Cast” is generally reserved for all-star movie productions featuring Academy Award winners like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Matt Damon. I don’t think anyone tosses around that term for indie films that barely get a release outside the major markets. But I’d like to declare that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints does have a powerhouse cast, considering it features Academy Award nominees Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, Tony nominated actor Keith Carradine, and Ben Foster, whose career has sparked award talk, especially for his performances in 3:10 to Yuma and The Messenger. This ethereal motion picture, written and directed by rising filmmaker, David Lowery, will move you to tears, as it explores love in all its conditions and introduces characters that stay with you after the movie is over.
Set against the backdrop of 1970s Texas, Affleck and Mooney star as doomed lovers, Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie. Lowery does something wonderful by introducing us to the characters midway through a lovers quarrel. We meet Bob and Ruth as characters first, and know nothing about their backstory. You feel the tenderness and love expressed between them in an instant. They’re just a couple of All-American kids struggling to make a life. Bob tells Ruth that no matter where he goes, she’ll always be with him, and if the get separated he’ll come back for her. The two lead actors play this scene with such intimacy and emotion that you don’t care who they are or what they’ve done; you simply want to root for them. When Ruth reveals that she’s pregnant, it makes the moment so much more special.
In the next scene, we learn that Bob and Ruth are a couple of outlaws. It’s never clear what kind of robbery they’re involved with, but it involves guns and a lot of cash. It’s a masterstroke on Lowery’s part to make us fall in love with Bob and Ruth before we realize that they’re bandits. This robbery goes wrong. Bob, Ruth and their accomplice, Freddy, get holed up in a rundown shack, surrounded by the police. A shootout occurs and Freddy is killed. Ruth desperately grabs Freddy’s pistol and fires at the cops, wounding one of them. Realizing that they’ll never get out alive, Bob resolves that they should turn themselves in. But he won’t let Ruth go to jail and he takes the blame for wounding the officer. Hauled off to jail and sentenced to 25 years, Bob promises he’ll come back for Ruth.
Years pass. Lowery does some more wonderful storytelling by never coming right out and telling us exactly how much time is elapsing. There are no captions that say “4 years later.” A series of scenes are all he gives us to put it together. Bob watches his prison bars slam shut. Ruth gives birth to their daughter. Bob learns he has a child. And then the child, Sylvie (played by extraordinary twin sisters, Kennadie and Jacklyn Smith) is four, bringing us into the “present” and the time in which the rest of the story plays out.
Ruth has become a respected citizen of her small town, her past discretions forgotten. She’s a good mom to Sylvie and has an admirer in Deputy Wheeler (an exceptional Foster), one of the lawmen on the scene that day four years ago. Ruth also has a protector in Skerritt, a local business owner whose history is tied to Bob and Ruth. Skerritt is played with equal parts compassion and menace by Carradine. As Sylvie’s 4th birthday approaches, word spreads that Bob has escaped from prison and may be coming back to get Ruth and their daughter. Once again, Lowery lets the audience fill in the missing scenes. We never see Bob escape, something we’ve seen hundreds of times in movies. Instead, Wheeler informs Ruth of what’s happening and we get glimpses of Bob after the fact, barefoot and on the run. Wheeler offers to take Ruth to a safe place – i.e. protect her. But she’s a strong willed woman who still loves Bob. Part of her wants him to show up so they can run away, yet, as a loving mother she understands that doing that would not be good for Sylvie.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a slow burning pulp movie, part western part neo-noir, which will garner comparisons with the Coen Brothers and Terrence Malick. I’d say those comparisons are accurate, but I’d also say that Lowery is working in territory owned by John Sayles, one of independent cinema’s true heroes. Anyone familiar with Sayles’ great films Matewan, Passion Fish and Lone Star will understand why I draw those comparisons. Not only is Lowery’s script a work of art, but he directs his actors with confidence and collaborates with his filmmakers to the best of their capabilities. Cinematographer Bradford Young creates a beautiful tapestry of images that play against the dread that lies underneath the surface of this love story, and editors Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo weave together the multiple plots with ease. Finally, the haunting and gorgeous score Daniel Hart never manipulates, but keeps hold of our hearts just as the characters do.
As I said, this is a powerhouse cast. With this performance and the one he did in the recent Out of the Furnace, Affleck as ascended to the top of my list of actors I refuse to miss in their next movie. Mara proves that she’s one of the finest character actresses of her generation. As for Foster, the range of emotions he puts you through is heartbreaking. He works with a genuineness that amazed me. One of his next roles will be as Lance Armstrong in Stephen Frears biopic about the tainted cyclist. I hope that role will bring him the wide attention and acclaim that he deserves.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is now available on DVD. Unlike many releases these days, IFC gives you extra incentives to purchase the DVD, as they included Lowery’s remarkable first feature film, St. Nick, in the release. There are also deleted scenes and a collection of shots not used in the film that have been assembled and backed with some of Hart’s stunning music. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is also streaming on SundanceNow. As the days wind down in 2013 and you find some extra time on your hands, this is one gem that is worth seeking out.