Ain't Them Bodies Saints is meticulously constructed. With deft camerawork and a pure attention to 70s small town details, there is a fantastic, technically sound structure that director David Lowery has built.
Saints is a nice house to look at from afar. Approach the steps, peer in and see that's it's empty. It isn't lived in and whatever lives had happened there have long been swept out.
When Saints screened at Sundance the buzz that caught fire and, lazily has followed it around since, is that Lowery's film is similar to Badlands. Ultimately the comparison is a disservice to Lowery's film, for they are nothing alike, outside of a romance created through armed thievery.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints begins where Badlands ends: the separation of young lovers via arrest. It also uses narration for providing structure. But, whereas Terrance Malick utilized Sissy Spacek's narration in non-sequiturs (putting on make-up, viewing vistas in a stereopticon, spelling out sentences on the roof of her mouth instead of talking) Lowery uses narration via love letters from prison that only service the plot, not internal insight.
Not to say that Saints should be Badlands, but the film suffers as a doomed romance because of these choices.
Outside of the first scenes we don't see the lovers together. We have no concept of their relationship. In Badlands we know the ill-fated outlaw relationship is born from boredom and lack of identity. In Ain't Them Bodies Saints is it a relationship out of necessity? We are simply told that he loves her and that he will come to rescue her. Somehow.
It's too bad. The opening scene is sumptuous.
Ruth (Rooney Mara) walks away from Bob (Casey Affleck) through the rows of a Texas orchard with trouble in her eyes. She tells Bob she's pregnant.
The performances from Mara and Affleck in this scene are perfect. Mara's eyes and lips flutter with uncertainty, Affleck moves from playful laughter to a caring embrace. It speaks to these actors that we want to spend more time with them -- in tender and true moments like this --before they move on to a robbery.
The robbery ends in a shootout from Bob's shack in the boonies. Ruth fires a handgun and does indeed wound a policeman (Ben Foster). Bob decides to stand down and take the blame on that shot, putting him in jail for 25 years.
Ruth gives birth, Bob writes letters. The distance between them are state lines and cell bars. The distance between their relationship and the audience is much wider and never closed.
We observe Ruth with her child who, in Lowery's lens but not in his script, provides her saintly qualities and redemption. Or as Foster, who has become posturely smitten with her says, "When I see you with your daughter, all I see is good."
Bob escapes from prison. How? He just walks out.
When he breaks out he is tracked by bounty hunters, we assume for leaving someone out of a cut. Bob's narrative -- just walking out of prison, traveling across the state, stopping to bunk with an old friend named Sweetie (Nate Parker) -- do lend the film a sort of Homer's "Odyssey" lyricism. However Bob's journey and Ruth's decision of whether to wait for him do not align in tone. Perhaps its purposeful, for Bob's romanticism cannot realistically be realized or reciprocated.
Bob's heart is on his sleeve. But it's a superficial love that doesn't seem to go deeper because the heart of the film is in recreating a memento to Malick, Robert Altman, William Friedkin and other leaders of 70s fugitive cinema.
The detail of Sweetie's makeshift saloon/backhouse that provides Bob shelter is incredibly rich. It feels precise with worn wood, a beaten jukebox and the tone of their conversation. Parker accepts his pal's unlikely summary of his breakout with a smile and a gentle lean back. The same enclosed preciseness can be said of Mara's and Affleck's performances and for Foster's humble stare and stoic mustache. Each line, slow and deliberate, sounds like the ghost of Tom Joad.
But it's this antique-hunting approach to filmmaking that keeps Saints characters at arm's length.
Despite its character shortcomings, Saints, however, does announce Lowery as a filmmaker to watch. He might construct a true classic someday (his flexes of detail makes me think he could make it very soon indeed), but Saints is a beautiful, empty house -- inhabited only by the ghosts of 70s American filmmakers.