Writer-director David Lowery has been putting in his 10,000 hours over the past few years, working as an editor and cinematographer for hire on many micro-indie projects, as part of the growing multi-tasking barter indie culture. SXSW has championed the Texas filmmaker, playing his shorts and features; “Saint Nick” showed promise on a meager $6000 budget. His 2011 Sundance short “Pioneer” was a ramp-up to this feature film. Now he has collected all his chits and ideas in one exquisitely crafted neo-noir western, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” The title was a misreading of an old American folk song; Lowery felt that it captured the right “classical, regional” feel, he said at the Saturday premiere press conference.
While it’s easy to compare this movie to Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” in terms of its content– two young bank robbers trying to grab happiness as their future disappears–and its magic hour photography (Bradford Young), Lowery puts his own stamp on this familiar material. He places his actors, led by hapless Casey Affleck and his wife Rooney Mara, who has his child while he is serving time in prison, inside a timeless sepia universe of ramshackle houses and wind-blown grasses. (The film was shot around Shreveport, Louisiana.) “I wanted it to feel old in the best sense of the word,” he said.
But the supporting actors are all spot on as well: Keith Carradine, Ben Foster and Nate Parker. And the country-tinged music (long-time collaborator Daniel Hart) and percussive sound also serve to modernize this film, keeping it simultaneously in the past and present. “It’s western and not western” said Hart, who used folks instruments in what he called “new ways.”
Lowery is a gifted, precise filmmaker of many gifts who likes to “see moments inbetween the big moments,” he said, “spaces between the silences when people are talking.” He likes to leave room for the audience’s imagination to get full range.
This won’t be an easy sell, but the right distributor could take this classic film all the way to the Oscars. It’s likely to be Weinstein, which owns foreign rights and has first look at domestic.
A beautiful, densely textured elegy for outlaw lovers separated by their own misdeeds, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints will serve most decisively to put director-writer David Lowery on the map as one of the foremost young standard bearers of the Malick and Altman schools of impressionistic mood-drenched cinema. This poetically told Texas crime saga is deeply and, to be honest, naively sentimental at its core, which creates something of a drain on its seriousness. But it’s a constant pleasure to watch and listen to, and stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck both have some rewarding strong scenes.
As things grow increasingly dire, Lowery gradually chisels away at the scenario and constructs an extraordinary paean to ghostly southern imagery imbued with a lyricism reflective of his grand literary ambitions. Lowery has mentioned Robert Altman’s revisionist western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as a key inspiration, but “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” equally suggests a less spiritual take on Terrence Malick’s cosmic visions of men and women dwarfed by natural wonders much sturdier than any of their flawed pursuits.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is lovingly rendered thanks to gorgeous photography from cinematographer Bradford Young and lived-in period detail from production designer Jade Healy and art director Jonathan Rudak. (Daniel Hart’s wistful music only heightens the spell.) No matter his derivativeness, Lowery is quite skilful at building emotion and crisscrossing between storylines — Mara and Affleck are almost never on screen together — and so credit must also go to editors Craig McKay, Jane Rizzo and Patrick M. Knicklebine for their seamless transitions and sure pacing.
In the pretentious and interminable Texas noir “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” director David Lowery shows he evidently thinks he’s Terrence Malick, or at least Andrew Dominik. Yeah, right. And I’m Glenn Kenny.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as husband-and-wife armed robbers (though we never get to see them on the job) who, after a perfunctory shootout in a rural hideout during which a sheriff (Ben Foster) gets wounded and a third robber gets killed, give themselves up to the police. Even though Ruth (Mara) fired the shot that hit the lawman, Bob (Affleck) takes the fall for everything and she walks.