Ain't Them Bodies Saints takes a high-brow approach

The drama makes plaster saints out of country outlaws

The ruminative drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints can make you wonder exactly how much dignity pop culture should afford to impoverished outlaws. Comedies like Raising Arizona and reality shows like "America's Dumbest Criminals" play up small-town stick-up artists as drawling, accident prone buffoons. The late Elmore Leonard managed to present credible crooks with humor but not condescension.

Higher-brow works like Ain't Them Bodies Saints take a more idealistic approach. In art-house films or ambitious novels, criminals come across as existential heroes who carry the weight of mankind's sins or replay archetypal human conflicts. The homespun nobility sometimes seems out of proportion to the actual crimes involved: Anyone who puts others at risk for selfish motives should forfeit a certain amount of respect.

In Ain't Them Bodies Saints, writer/director David Lowery emulates the likes of Terrence Malick and filmmakers of the 1970s who all but canonize noble outlaws. If you question the reverence with which the director treats his lead characters, Saints' foundation becomes very unsteady indeed, even though, on a scene-by-scene basis, the film displays top-notch craftsmanship.

Saints takes place in the Texas Hill Country at an unspecified time. The Hollywood Reporter estimated the early 1970s based on the makes of the automobiles, but it could be any year between World War II and the proliferation of the cell phone. The first scene introduces a pair of star-crossed lovers in a long, gorgeously sun-drenched shot, as Ruth (Rooney Mara) tries to walk away from Bob (Casey Affleck). We discover that she's angry at the sweet-talking young man because his ambitions for a better life hinge on criminal activity, but she loves him too much to quit him, especially since she's pregnant.

Lowery offers an elliptical presentation of Bob's crimes. We see Ruth in a car, watching Bob and his partner turn a corner with guns drawn. Cut to the partner bleeding out in the back of a vehicle during a police chase. Cut to Ruth and Bob in a farmhouse, surrounded by police. Ruth fires a weapon and, to her surprise, hits police officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). The couple surrenders and Bob takes the rap for the shooting.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints suggests that Lowery could have a great film in him. In addition to the luminous cinematography, he shows a command of using camera movement to build tension and cultivates atmosphere through edits that withhold information. The soft-spoken cast gives strong performances that always suggest that the characters are trying, and half-succeeding, to keep a lid on overpowering emotions. He effectively keeps the reins on Foster, who can take method-actor choices over the top when given a chance, but here gives an enormously sympathetic portrayal.

Affleck conveys Bob's general likability but falters at bringing out the role's deeper dimensions. When he remarks, "I used to be the devil, but now I'm just a man" he doesn't convey the inner demons or depths of passions that would make the character compellingly flawed. The film gives Bob (and Ruth, to a lesser extent) a pass for misdeeds that include armed robbery and car-jacking. Rather than weep for their tragic romance, you're more likely to feel that they deserve what they get, and you want to remind them, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time."

More By This Writer

SCREEN TIME: Atlanta’s fall film productions Article

Sunday September 30, 2018 05:00 am EDT
New releases across genres share spotlight with other fall film events | more...

SCREEN TIME: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ brings Spike Lee back in a big way Article

Monday August 13, 2018 05:00 am EDT
Fact-based 1970s drama finds disturbing parallels with today’s politics | more...

SCREEN TIME: Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’ offers head-spinning satire of 21st century life Article

Sunday July 1, 2018 12:52 pm EDT

 The surreal Sorry to Bother You demonstrates that it’s better to be a movie with too many ideas than too few. Just some of the themes tackled by writer/director/rapper Boots Riley include income inequality, racial code-switching, political activism, viral fame, and other hot-button issues.

Atlanta co-star Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius, a.k.a. Cash, a broke young man who takes a lousy...

| more...

SCREEN TIME: ‘Solo’s behind-the-scenes conflicts rival its on-screen sci-fi swashbuckling Article

Tuesday June 12, 2018 04:11 pm EDT
“Star Wars” prequel and low-budget thriller “The Endless” creates shared universes on different scales. | more...

‘Hamilton’s’ hip-hop history lives up to years of hype Article

Friday May 25, 2018 06:05 pm EDT
Touring show brings rapid-fire performances and muscular choreography to Fox Theatre | more...
Search for more by Curt Holman

[Admin link: Ain't Them Bodies Saints takes a high-brow approach]