The character-driven serious psychological drama is one of the most interesting trends in the current American cinema. Filmmakers such as Jeff Nichols, Derek Cianfrance and Andrew Dominik, with films like Take Shelter, Mud and The Place Beyond The Pines have carved out a niche of self-aware, contextually rich pieces of cinema, that owe a debt of gratitude to the great wave of Hollywood fringe cinema that came with the New Hollywood.
David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a valuable addition to this sub-genre.
Charting the development of a relationship in the wake of a post-crime spree arrest, Lowery’s film plays like a fascinating theoretical epilogue to the New Hollywood. Opening with the kind of sequence that ordinarily closes out the archetypical Love On The Run-type movie, as our “heroes” face justice, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints might be read as some kind of hypothetical post-script to Badlands, set in the hours after Kit is captured and Holly has to return to the real world. Similarly, had Bonnie & Clyde not bit the bullet that evening might this be the fate bestowed upon them? It’s an interesting doctrine to ponder. An further element of contextualisation is present in the form of Keith Carradine’s aged cowboy, now destined to a life keeping shop and standing up for his own reading of the law. Evoking the image of Henry Ford, Carradine’s myth of the gun recalls the misquoted John Ford’s determination to “print the legend”, even when faced with the truest truth, which is a byline that runs thematically through the actor’s first notable film appearance in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
The subversion of Americana and cinema is further pursued in Casey Affeck’s Bob Muldoon, the male lead of the picture, and through whom we see the great American myth mixed with Homer. There’s a relentlessness to Muldoon’s narrative journey that recalls Odysseus. His tale is one marked by the inevitability of failure from the off, with the hopelessness that said line brings with it heightening the ordinary. There’s a profoundly moving romantic streak running throughout, with Muldoon painted as a fellow caught out of luck rather than being the unhinged criminal that his reputation suggests. That he’s introduced to the audience in the act of taking the blame for a crime committed by his beloved spouse affirms a nobility that is nary referred to explicitly at all within the picture, Lowery confident that it’s mere presence is enough to convey his intentions.
Rooney Mara is the wife aforementioned, and is perhaps the highlight of the piece. Her Ruth Guthrie is a complex figure, torn between marital obligation and maternal devotion, with Mara ably projecting the conflicting emotions to powerful effect. The tenderness of this performance is typical of the understated nature of the picture. Interestingly, Lowery chooses to eschew the sort of sequences one might expect to find in a film concerned with criminals. We don’t see the offended acts being committed, instead remaining outside of any space wherein anything that might be described as a “set-piece” takes place. Even the moments of action that do seep through to the viewer are downplayed and fleeting, and over as soon as they have begun.
Lowery’s use of technique is as assured as the picture is subtle. The film’s multi-channel climactic scene is cut to perfection, an emotional epiphany as provocative as any seen on the big screen in 2013, while an inventive score fuses the kind of evocative tone-setting traditional soundtrack matter with elements of experimental jazz. One particularly tense sequence, cut to a sound deriving from the clapping of hands, acts as the perfect fusion of the traditional and the hyper-modern, an seems to be an apt metaphor for the nature of the film itself, caught between the now aged-but-once-modernist New Hollywood and the contemporary American cinema.