The film does not live up to its lofty goals and instead it only provides loving references to its superior influences.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (LA Film Fest)
David Lowery’s unclear and unconvincing script extinguishes what could have been a fiery noir burning with lust and violence. His story contains many great crime genre staples—a love struck criminal, a beautiful country girl, a menacing father figure, lusty cops, and a prison escape; not to mention it’s set in the 30s. The industrious Lowery has lured immense talent to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints but it fails to deliver even an ounce of the proposed excitement. I think Lowery fights to avoid genre clichés and in doing so saps the drama from his story.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints opens with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara’s characters arguing, but obviously very much in love. Without earning an investment in their relationship it hardly matters when Affleck goes to prison after a heist gone wrong in the next scene. Now neither character has anything to do but pine for the other. Luckily, Bradford Young’s stunning cinematography breathes some life into scenes with little content. Mara seems to have nothing to do but wander through town at sunset and does not posses the aura to express anything through her inactivity. Lowery always seems to place viewers in the lesser dramatic point of view. He follows Mara while Affleck’s character toils in prison and eventually escapes to win her back. Its lazy execution calls to mind the haphazard prison escape sequence in Down by Law, which Jim Jarmusch plays for laughs. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, on the other hand, is deadly serious in showing Affleck’s flight from bondage with the mundane image of him emerging from the woods tattered and covered in dirt.
Luckily Affleck proves more adept at wielding inactivity than his co-star. He always hides some mystery behind his eyes as he dances through Lowery’s poetic monologues about escaping prison and his undying love for a woman. Eventually he does act on his goal and attempts to find Mara. However, I found myself struggling to care. He first gets thwarted by Keith Carradine, who seems to be some kind of foster or adoptive father to Mara or even both of them, and then by a band of bounty hunters looking for the loot Affleck kept to himself. These confrontations prove extremely unsatisfying and sometimes even maddeningly confusing as Lowery clouds the circumstances of every relationship. Finally, when Affleck faces down his pursuers, even he appears confounded.
The most vague of all is Ben Foster’s character—a cop involved in the shootout at the beginning of the film that led to Affleck’s arrest. He shyly peruses Mara when he’s tasked to watch her when the police learn of Affleck’s escape. He manages to steal every scene he’s in, but Mara doesn’t provide tough competition.
Without it’s huge stars, stunning cinematography or enchanting music Ain’t Them Bodies Saints would be near unwatchable. Perhaps on paper, Lowery’s picture appeared as a resurgence of period crime drama in the vein of the much beloved Badlands or recent hit Boardwalk Empire. I lament that the film does not live up to its lofty goals and instead it only provides loving references to its superior influences.