Thursday, August 22, 2013

A western in modern dress

Ain't Them Bodies Saints, grounded in Texas, but aiming for something bigger.
I don't know precisely what director David Lowery had in mind when he titled his Texas-based drama, Ain't Them Bodies Saints I do, however, know that there's something about Texas that inspires certain filmmakers to create characters who parcel out their words cautiously, as if they were hole cards to be turned over reluctantly but with no doubt about their ultimate power.

That's the feeling you get watching the characters in Lowery's movie, which moves to the kind of dreamy rhythms that have marked the work of filmmaker Terrence Malick. Lowery doesn't have Malick's grace, but he knows how to tell a story that's grounded in Texas color but which also strives to reach a mythic plane that transcends any specific location. Who knows? Maybe Texas really is a launching pad from which the mythic stratosphere becomes more readily attainable.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints tells the tale of Ruth (Rooney Mara), a woman who has had a long-standing involvement with Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), a bank robber who loves her more than he loves just about anything. Bob loves Ruth so much, he takes the rap for her in a post-robbery shoot-out that wounds a deputy; Bob turns his 25-year prison sentence into an act of self-sacrifice so that Ruth can remain free.

Bob writes letters to Ruth from his jail cell, and we know from the start that Bob's only purpose in life is to reunite with the woman who has since had his child, a daughter.

Almost all of this happens in what can be viewed as the film's prologue. The real story begins after Bob escapes from jail, returns to the town where Ruth lives and tries to re-enter her life, a goal that we know he'll never achieve because Ain't Them Bodies Saints is less like a traditional drama than an illustrated story book composed as accompaniment for a doleful country tune about ill-fated love.

With Bob on the loose, Patrick (Ben Foster), a local cop -- the very one wounded by Ruth -- adopts a vigilant attitude toward Ruth and her child. She's also watched over by Skeritt (Keith Carradine), who runs a local store and who evidently had a relationship with Bob and one of his running buddies when both were kids.

The key to the film's mystery is embodied in Mara, who plays a woman capable of reflecting emotion off both hard and soft surfaces. Ruth seldom smiles, and she's clearly not to be trifled with on any level.

If pressed, I'd say that Lowery has made a film about fate and tragedy. Ain't Them Bodies Saints opens with a title card that reads, "This was Texas," perhaps a suggestion that the film takes place in a past governed by the logic of a thousand westerns and that something -- perhaps the flinty, uncompromising integrity of its characters -- has been forever lost.

Lowery's dialog puts an emphasis on conviction: When Carradine's character tells a thug who's looking to settle an old score that he'll kill him if he turns up again, we're supposed to know that Carradine's Skeritt means what he says. The man will not die an accidental death.

With its strange musical score, its improbabilities and its hard-scrabble ethos, Ain't Them Bodies Saintsmay be a bit too self-conscious for its own good. And I often wonder whether these kinds of movies depict credible characters or should be seen more as reflections of how filmmakers wish people were.

But if Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a story about tragic love, it's also a love song, sung to characters who pride themselves on looking even the worst possible news square in the eye.

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