I don’t know how other people write reviews (and I can’t pretend to even follow any particular methodology myself with any consistency), but sometimes I like to skim through what other people have written on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Not because I want to crib ideas but just to get a sense of whether my fellow critics generally share my feelings about a film I’ve just seen. Well, let’s just say opinion is divided on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but even amongst those who loved the film, there’s a smug sense that wearily comes across of identifying Malick-by-numbers hushed-voiceover rural Southern “magic hour” poetic lyricism amongst the lovingly-recreated hipster-baiting faux-70s dilapidation.
The thing is, yes, all that stuff is there and even at one remove I can’t pretend I’m above wanting to namecheck it*, but even if you’d only started watching movies this year, you’d still have recognised the style. It’s been over 40 years since Terrence Malick’s Badlands and his characteristic feel has been recreated many times since, not least by David Gordon Green in his first two features (of which his second, 2003’s All the Real Girls, is my personal favourite). Now another David, also on his second feature, has given us his take, and though I should be weary of this by now, yet still I find it captivating.
The film’s way with images and sound — all co-ordinated beautifully, with those images shot in the dying light by Bradford Young — owes far more to the straightforward lyricism of 70s Malick than the impressionistic rush that’s evoked by, say, Upstream Color. Partly that’s the fetishised period setting, but for me it all feels very comforting in a peculiarly cinematic way. The same goes for the plot, which also has that kind of preserved-in-aspic timelessness of archetypal generic cliché. In this case, it’s the couple on the run — whose apparent life of violent crime is hinted at in the most extraordinarily telegraphed way — split apart by the forces of the law, and who are trying to find a way to be together. The enigmatic title, all written out on-screen in wonky hand lettering like the rest of the main credits, seems to hint at this, with its sense of fallen angels harbouring wayward souls.
The plotting is probably the film’s weakness. It may not be quite as simplistic as I’ve presented it, but just as some of the plot points are extremely telegraphed, so can the justifications for what’s going on seem perplexingly opaque. There’s little hint at why a lot of what’s happening is happening except at the most basic emotional level — these are characters who have that airy, idealistic and thoroughly cinematic approach to life, which consists in doing what feels most melodramatically appropriate. But that works for me, for whom (as those who’ve read many of my reviews will be getting a sense) plot is not the key to why I like any given film. The film has an almost tangibly heart-rending pathos throughout that kept me emotionally engaged enough to feel affected by all the smallest gestures and looks from the attractively-lit cast (there feels like there’s lots of those close-ups of faces shot so that only one spot is in focus, says some hairs flickering around the subject’s eyes, while the background shades into hazy obscurity).
The cast does well, too, especially given I’d never really considered myself a fan of any of them prior to this film. Rooney Mara, who did so well as the brittle core of the uneven Side Effects, is again the emotional centre as Ruth, the object of outlaw Bob’s affections. She was his partner in crime but has been spared the force of law, possibly in part due to her at-the-time-unborn girl, while he languishes in jail — well, until he escapes. As Bob Muldoon — possibly the most interesting film character named after a former New Zealand Prime Minister since the game warden in Jurassic Park — Casey Affleck is able to successfully pull off the blend of lovestruck naïveté and criminal wiliness that allows him to escape prison yet unerringly return to precisely the place he’s most likely to be accosted, the small rural Texas town of Meridian where Ruth and her daughter now live. Into this mix comes the local sheriff, Patrick (Ben Foster), whose facial hair and personal style is certainly on-trend (if you happen to live in Brooklyn NYC, or East London). Pleasingly, there’s quite a bit of complexity to Patrick’s character, who is not simply there as a heavy-handed agent of the law, but in fact seems rather sympathetic towards Bob, if rather moreso towards Ruth.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’d quite understand if this film wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but those who have a fondness for the lyricism of sunsets and cornfields, of characters who drift though their lives as if blown by winds across the Texas prairie, of hushed voiceovers and limpid gazes, well this film is probably for them. And sure, those may be clichés but they’re very cinematic ones, and for me at least, very likeable ones.
* Though I personally would avoid using “hipster” as a lazy way of mocking people who are having more fun than you, and think that those who are paid to write film criticism should probably, as they say, check their privilege.
Director/Writer David Lowery; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Thursday 19 September 2013.