Three terrific performances prove irresistibly compelling in this melancholic tale
Director: Drew Lowery; Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Nate Parker, Robert Longstreet, Charles Baker, Augustine Frizzell; Running time: 96 minutes; Certification: 15
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the most naturalistic and modest film you’ll see this year. It’s just beautiful and down-to-earth storytelling. There’s nothing flashy or showy here, nothing attention-grabbing or gut-punching or shock-inducing. There’s nothing that will make you run out of the cinema smiling or crying, nothing that will change your world. It’s just a sad story about love, revenge and consequences.
Director Drew Lowery’s approach to capturing the earthy feel of rural 70s Texas – the backdrop on which our film is set and balances so delicately on – is to first hire an excellent cinematographer (Bradford Young) and then forgo conventional lighting techniques to the point where our actors’ faces are often completely consumed by shadows. During night sequences, or even just rides in a car when the sun isn’t searing down, we regularly can’t see anyone because there’s a very conscious effort to avoid the artificiality that inherently comes with lighting up a set. This would rarely be allowed in mainstream Hollywood. “Cover up the star’s face? Never. We paid millions to get them in this thing, you light the crap outta them, dammit!”. Here, though, it pays off wonderfully. We almost don’t need to see their faces because we feel their emotion. There’s a strange ethereal quality to the drama that negates the necessity of such conventional tropes and techniques, and it benefits greatly from it.
There’s a strong resemblance here to There Will Be Blood. It lacks the scope and sheer corporeal power of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, but right down to the font used for the titles, it feels as if we’re in a similar place – and that is no bad place to be. If Ain’t Them Bodies Saints doesn’t have the powerhouse performance of Daniel Day Lewis, it has the effortless, brooding presence of Casey Affleck, the younger brother of our new Batman and an astonishing actor who I’ve been a big fan of ever since his small but standout turn in Good Will Hunting. That was really the first time I took notice of him, and he’s just continued to impress me ever since (see The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford for further proof of how brilliant this guy is). Rooney Mara also puts in a wonderful turn, and Ben Foster is magnetic as a conflicted, empathetic Sheriff who tries to comfort Ruth and her child despite being shot in the shootout leading to their arrest, sparking some truly engaging and reflective moments between the two.
Bob’s poetic narration of the letters he’s written to Ruth while in prison serves as a scenic driving force for much of the story. Set against the subtle and endearing soundtrack, it’s easy to become completely lost in Lowery’s world without really knowing why. Modest, naturalistic and profoundly affecting, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is no world-changer, but it’s a beautifully melancholic piece of work, and one of the unexpected stand-outs of the year.