Saturday, 16 November 2013

On Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, separated lovers and promising directors

directed and written by David Lowery

Does a poster count as part of a film? Almost definitely not. But before I actually talk about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints I want to spend a little time on its poster. See left. Beautiful, right? When you lean in closer you realise it’s not a would-be lovers embrace but the two main characters being arrested (see the policeman to the right) and yet the light hits it in such a way that the two people together seem beautiful, poetic. It’s not quite romanticism, but there’s something lyrical to be found in something as awful as an arrest. It’s just a poster, but in many ways that’s also Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a tale of separated lovers.

Cold Mountain is not the first, nor is it the only, film to do it but it’s usually the one I revert to when considering one of the major issues of a specific type of love story. What to do when the conceit of your drama depends on keeping your lovers apart? Specifically…when the film is less about the lovers together, but a steady focus on the journey back to each other. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is in a particularly difficult situation because a few minutes after the opening scene the lovers in question are separated and they do not reunite until the end of the film. We aren’t lucky enough to build any relationship with them before they’re turn apart and so the film must roll on and, I wonder, are we rooting for a reconciliation?

Maybe. But, then again, maybe not.

“Are you gonna leave me? Because, I’ll leave you first.” It’s one of the first things Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) tells her husband in the film’s opening and it’s as prescient as anything in this deliberately plotted 90 minute film. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints depends on familiar things and telegraphed arcs. We meet Ruth and Bob, a young husband and wife duo expecting their first child. Minutes into our meeting with them we realise that the two are criminals and they’re soon involved in a shootout. Ruth wounds an officer, Bob takes the blame and heads to jail. He doesn’t meet his daughter. Years later he makes an escape to reunite with them, the only problem is he can’t set foot in their small-town neighbourhood and she can’t really leave either. From the inception this relationship looks doomed. Lowery does not direct the film with moroseness but his intentions seem clear, nonetheless.

...more below the jump on the cast, the photography and Lowery...

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is confidently packaged. It’s ninety minutes and, yes, its pace is deliberately unhurried but with much self assurance. Early on Lowery sets up all the things standing in the films ostensible status quo (the reconciliation of Ruth and Bob). The difficulty of breaking out jail is one thing, her surrogate “father” Skerritt who has sketchy fingers over it all and the affable policeman Patrick watching over Ruth and her daughter both for kindness and something more romantic. Bob cannot return home to this town. Ruth, a mother aware of what her daughter needs, is not certain she wants to leave.

Much of the effect that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has on me has to do with how it looks Lowery’s spare screenplay is well constructed but the effectiveness of the film depends significantly on its visuals. A little digging reveal it is set in the seventies, but he time itself feels like it could be anytime. Bradford Young’s (who also did the work on well-shit contemporary film Pariah) photography is gorgeous and stark and is an effectiveness tool in informing the melancholy mood the film is trying to evoke. At the film’s close a two beautiful shots, aided by my favourite cut of the entire film sees us moving from a dying Bob in Ruth’s arms to an earlier time of the two in a backseat in the same position. It’s that sort of simple profundity that Lowery is going for.

And it’s in the success of his use of his simplicity that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints frustrates ever so mildly it’s that it doesn’t reach for the heights you know it could. What can I say? I’m a greedy audience. I want a good film flirting with greatness to realise that potential. The movie unfolds like a mood poem, but it’s significant how literal it is. I will not say it is “not deep” because that’s an inexact criticism, it’s just so unembellished that the fact that its machinations are happening on the surface-level for the most part makes it run the risk of being plain. There are ambiguities like the reason Bob and Ruth become criminals, or why Bob ends up hurt but the film is not interested in representing anything deeper. Allegory not a prerequisite for goodness but with a film as spare in story as this it would not hurt. In the middle it becomes ponderous in the way the story stalls seemingly wondering just how to bide its time until that necessary tragedy at the end. But, on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints I was so excited to see where Lowery goes next. This is a man with something to say, and a knowledge of how to say it and I’m only hopeful that his next film is richer and even more nuanced.

He’s ably supported by his actors, though. Or maybe, he’s gifted with the talent of discerning talents in them. I told Jose that I finally understood Rooney Mara with her work here. And I’m not sure if it’s chance of Lowery’s contributions or the role, but Ruth as simple and intrepid as her name but a character that could so easily be a blank with her becomes a woeful symbol for motherhood and growing up. There’s grace in her every movements, but also resilience and savvy. She’s grounding the less exciting half of the film but doing so with aplomb. The entire cast matches her central Ruth. Affleck’s gregarious, sad, Bob is my MVP but Carradine’s ambiguous father-figure, Foster’s bashful police and Nate Parker as Bob’s helpful friend are all doing well. And, they all come off as nice folks just trying to get by. None of them are heroes, but none are villains.

And, I think that’s ultimately the thing I love most about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It does not approach its subject with delusions of romanticism glance is not tinged with cynicism, either. More prevalent than anything is the overwhelming sadness which comes with reaching out, or reaching back, to things that we have outgrown or have outgrown us. The film lives on the inevitability melancholy pervading the air. We’re given the opportunity to see only the briefest moments of their time together in the past and the inevitability of their separation is sad but beautifully elegiac. I’d seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints within days of The World’s End and that recurring murmur of “You can’t go home again” was stark. It’s not indicative of a lack of love that they can’t end up together. Sometime life is just that way. Everyone is trying to do right but life can’t do right by them all. Which sounds like a tired maxim, but it’s like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in that way. It depends on familiar things that could be trite, and yet it moves you in spite of itself with its sincerity.



Brittani Burnham said...

Great write up! I've been looking forward to this one since it premiered at Sundance. It's available on Netflix next month!

Nick Prigge said...

See, I think that question of whether or not we're rooting for a reconciliation is exactly the same question Ruth is trying to answer for herself in the middle of the film. That's what I felt like ultimately drove the whole film. That idea of responsibility - to her home & to her child - colliding with the idea of romanticism, which might be misplaced.

It is a fairly literal film, you're right. I do love a good allegory, but I guess I didn't mind that simplicity of it. They seemed like simple people with big emotions.

But, you know, I'm biased. This is still the best film I've seen this year. Oh, and good catch on the seventies. I didn't pick that up. But I agree, it could be any time.

Mette said...

The poster was the sole reason I clicked on this link, I don't usually read reviews of movies I haven't seen. It sounds great!