Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

by deerinthexenonarclights

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I’m a lover of the crime spree sub-genre, particularly those of the sixties and seventies. It’s one of those topics perfectly suited for the storytelling of its time because of how many social rules the films must inherently break and how many bonds there were back then that needed breaking. So I was quite excited to see that the style was being revived for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, though I was also worried about whether or not it might actually sallow the strike-rate of this particular subsection of stories; I mean what were the chances of it being another Bonnie and Clyde? Another Badlands? To his credit writer / director David Lowery doesn’t attempt to ape those great seventies stories, instead he does something much bolder and far more interesting: he shapes for them, for all of them, a loose sequel of sorts. Another in the Badlands series, not a sibling but a son.

Interestingly, despite the flat country album font of the introductory chyron and the softly focused feel of the film stock you never fully forget that this is a modern movie, not are you supposed to; it is a period piece looking back into the past, never a genuine part of it and this conflict on context drives much of the initial interest. The film starts off with what can only be described as a ‘previously on’ sequence, a montage of abridged stand-in scenes that convey the entirety of the normal crime-spree tale from its fun beginnings to its fatal end in a mere matter of minutes; allowing the story to then move onto what comes next, to what life is like after an event such as this.

Thematically this subversion of story works well because the movie that follows is very much about how the past cannot be recreated, how once broken things can never quite be put back together again; the couple at the core want more than anything to revive the innocent ideal that they feel they once shared but their life is no longer that simple. The film then is also about separation, about the alien illegitimacy of an apparently inseparable pair pulled in twain. So it makes sense that structurally Saints‘ sequences feel a little separated, but there is a point where the picture goes too far in this regard, sacrificing story for effect.

Each individual through-line is terrifically executed, exploring the concept in its own interesting way but they don’t play together well; especially since the way that we cut from one to the next never feels natural, the progression between plots more jarring than enlightening. Just as Casey Affleck’s escaped convict tale became tensely compelling we would cut to a low stakes scene of Mara’s motherhood or a stoic soliloquy from Keith Carradine, and just when these would begin to click we would cut back to the caper. There’s no reason that these elements couldn’t intermingle within a single movie, but here I couldn’t help but feel their disparate tones hurt the overall experience.

And that’s the thing about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, for all my waffling on about its cinematic context this is a films designed to be experienced. The story that it tells is, despite all I’ve said, still a fairly familiar one – its more a stretching out of the old then a breaking into new ground – and so it’s up to the style of its telling to impress you. Towards the end especially Lowery succeeds at this: the music becomes almost constant and this ties together the frayed strands of story far tighter than they previously had been. The closing sequences coming together to develop suspense and a building dread that, while purposely less potent, brought to mind certain sequences of the Coen’s No Country.

The other high comparison one must make when talking about this movie is to one Terrence Malick. Saints is an often stunningly shot film in no small part to the way in which it apes the established set-ups of that man, which is no insult. Lowery recreates shots, like the swaying core and the character stepping out towards the sun, aptly as well as lovingly and the film is visually lush as a result. Elementally then it is a very strong piece of work, it just didn’t quite work for me as a whole, never transcended its totality though the parts were all primed to.

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