Though film genres are in a constantly shifting state, perhaps none has declined so pervasively since the 1950s as the Western. A firm presence in Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, now years can go by before another filmmaker dares tread that deserted path with any gumption. Thankfully, independent cinema has a way of instilling innovation and creativity into stories when they are most needed, and this happens to be case with David Lowery’s neo-western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The film premiered to great acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been gathering steam in the festival circuit ever since, with a similarly successful screening at the Cannes Film Festival.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints tells the story of ill-fated lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck), a pair of outlaws who are separated when Bob is sent to prison after claiming responsibility for shooting a police officer that Ruth had harmed. Years later, Bob manages to escape and sets out across the wide-open plains of Texas to find Ruth and meet his young daughter for the first time. Trying to remain covert but determined to see his family, Bob contacts old friends and attempts to communicate with his wife. Ruth, for her part, finds herself under the watchful eye of a local police officer with whom she has struck a wary friendship. Torn between her desire to reunite with her lover and the danger inherent in seeking him out, she fears for her daughter’s safety. As the law closes in on Bob, the star-crossed couple desperately attempts to negotiate a meeting face-to-face.
It is hard to know where to begin in describing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ many wondrous feats. The premise and story themselves aren’t particularly original, but what astounds is the way they are so delicately developed, so lovingly reproduced onscreen so as to envelop the viewer completely. The film’s small-town Texas setting reproduces the 1970s but feels timeless, as if this cluster of abandoned farm houses and dusty bars had stood the test of time for centuries. Not much has changed here since the days of Butch Cassidy, and it shows. The measured pace and lingering shots recall Terrence Malick or Robert Altman’s early work, but Lowery manages to make the film firmly his own. He is equally skilled in crafting profound, quiet exchanges of dialogue and suspenseful action sequences. Yet the melancholic sense of doom that hangs over the lovers’ story never ceases to be tempered with a timid sense of hope. This is the neo-western as you’ve never seen it before, marked by vivid characters whose words echo long after the closing credits.
Bradford Young was deservedly awarded the cinematography award at Sundance for his stunning work on the film. He captures the quiet, dreamlike quality of the setting with graceful handheld camerawork and poetic compositions. The camera almost seems to happen upon the characters by chance, as if accidentally observing the intimate and spontaneous moments of their lives. Certain shots linger in the mind, such as Ruth walking and dancing with her daughter by the roadside, or the long dolly shot in which the lovers are torn away from each other by the police after being caught.
The incredible array of performances deserves equal mention, as they are all consistently excellent. Rooney Mara shines as the ex-outlaw struggling with her own desires and the need to put her daughter first. Quiet and contemplative, she nevertheless exudes confidence and power in her direct delivery of every line of dialogue. Mara shares with Casey Affleck an ability to communicate years of longing and doubt without words, aided by the intense chemistry between the two actors. Affleck likewise oscillates between a vulnerability and inner strength that is astonishing, mercifully far outstripping his brother’s talents. As if that weren’t enough, the supporting cast proves equally watchable; Ben Foster delivers a subdued yet passionate performance as the morally troubled policeman, while Keith Carradine nails the role of Bob’s unforgiving, overprotective father.
Finally, the film’s music merits acknowledgement as well; composer Daniel Hart’s haunting soundtrack adds a lyricism to the images that grows progressively mesmerizing throughout the film. Reminiscent of Gustavo Santaolalla’s work on Babel, Into the Wild, and The Motorcycle Diaries, the score makes use of melodic and protracted guitar arrangements. These songs alone could tell thousands of ill-fated love stories, but coupled with the film’s images their narrative power is breathtaking. ‘Bodily’ percussion – clapping and snapping – constitutes the other half of the soundtrack, building suspense in a visceral way as Bob’s freedom becomes ever more precarious.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints turns the western on its head, relying on raw storytelling power to convey a character-focused narrative that’s a far cry from the overly chaotic brawls that have defined the genre in the past. David Lowery faces the challenges of reinventing such an established field head-on, proving once again that when it comes to fresh perspectives, independent cinema is a lifesaver for audiences and filmmakers alike.