We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive the love they deserved upon initial release. For the 18th entry, we’re returning to the myth of the outlaw in David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
How We Failed It
Inspiration is a keystone of filmmaking, of art. All storytelling comes from somewhere, a version of something previous. As long as authenticity is retained, shouldn’t that be okay? Sometimes there are films that do have clear inspirations, but they get buried up in comparisons to previous works by audiences, so much that the shining achievement of what’s there is shrugged off. This is the tragedy of how how David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints became forgotten.
The film begins after a botched robbery, in which young (and pregnant) lovers Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are holed up in a shootout with the cops. Ruth shoots and hits one of the officers, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), and Bob decides to take the blame for it and absolve her of all charges. He goes to prison, and Ruth raises their daughter with the help of Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the surrogate father and reformed crimelord. Four years later, Bob breaks out of prison to run off with Ruth and their daughter.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was never going to be a box office smash, as it was never designed that way. The film played in only 44 theaters, however it did manage to score a massive $1 million, a great return for such a small sample size. Box Office Mojo doesn’t have any info on the budget for the film, but Wikipedia reports that it was $4 million. So no, it didn’t hit its budget at the box office, but it still did quite successful for a release of less than 50 theaters. The biggest failure of this film actually comes from the critical and film community for shrugging it off and letting Ain’t Them Bodies Saints slip by unrecognized.
Critics were fairly mixed on Lowery’s film, and what it all came down to was how attached they were in easy comparisons between Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Terrence Malick’s American classic Badlands. A.A. Dowd wasn’t in favor: “Grass sways in the summer breeze, the sun peaks majestically through the clouds, and soothing voices whisper sweet nothings on the soundtrack. No, Terrence Malick hasn’t done the unthinkable and released two movies in one year. The director has instead gained a new disciple, a fellow Texan with an eye for the near-divine beauty of the American Southwest. With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, indie upstart David Lowery mimics the mythic methodology of his revered elder, drowning the sparse tale of an on-the-run convict and his lonely baby’s mama in lots of dreamy, magic-hour atmosphere. Here’s the rub, though: Even Malick’s lesser works, like this spring’s To The Wonder, add up to more than the sum of their lyrical parts. They have big ideas, bigger emotions, and a sense of dramatic urgency — all qualities fatally absent from this well-shot but bloodless crime fable. Lowery, it can’t be denied, has Malick’s moves down pat. It’s the Malick touch that eludes him.”
A.O. Scott got hung up on the Badlands comparisons too: “Instead, the wonder-of-nature cinematography (by Bradford Young) and the fluid editing betray a heavy debt to the work of Terrence Malick, though with little of Mr. Malick’s intellectual gravity or visionary ambition. Authenticity is rarely a fair standard for judging movies, which always depend on overt and invisible artifice. But this film’s longing for just that quality — for a simple, elemental truth that will be both specific to its time and place and ripe with deeper meanings — is precisely what makes it unconvincing.”
Christy Lemire saw the authenticity in Lowery’s film: “The comparisons to Terrence Malick are obvious and many — and a well-deserved compliment — for David Lowery’s drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” The setting of 1970s Texas, the impressionistic wisps of memory, the quiet naturalism of warm sunlight and the dusky magic-hour melancholy — they’re all there, all those signatures that are reminiscent of the master filmmaker.”
It’s clear that Lowery was greatly influenced by Malick and wasn’t afraid to let Ain’t Them Bodies Saints represent that, but unfortunately critics got stuck on the comparison and didn’t move further to see the unique and beautiful work as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from another film or filmmaker, so long as you do a good job of it, and Lowery did an excellent job. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is completely its own identity of a work, not just some cheap imitation.
Why It’s Great
The first title card reads “This was in Texas.” It’s an appropriate introduction to this world of Lowery’s that plays with archetypes and myths of outlaws. Although the logline states the film is set in the 1970s, the time period is never mentioned, which enhances its sort of heightened reality. Bradford Young’s cinematography is timeless, existing in a state between reality and fairy tale. He is one of the best working cinematographers, and the work here is proof. The landscapes seem almost dreamlike in the way that Lowery and Young frame them, while the lighting elevates the material (and the characters) into poetic territory. A highlight of the film includes a stunning shootout, shot in a midnight mist to accent the fable-like mentality of the piece. Daniel Hart’s score adds to this aesthetic, revolving around claps and violins, conjuring up a memory of the outlaw.
The end of the mythicism around the outlaw, and its clash against crushing reality, is a central theme of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s embodied in the attitude of Bob and how he sees himself in the world. Speaking with a friend, he makes up an elaborate tale about how he escaped, going on for minutes and even involving God and the Devil, to which his friend replies, “News says you just jumped off a work truck.” Other scenes return to this mentality. When hired thugs show up in Skerritt’s shop, looking for Bob, they inquire about an old pistol with a list next to it. Skerritt tells them “that there’s a list of every poor son of a bitch who met his end from that pistol.” One replies “sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me.” There’s a desire to believe in these tales and myths, even if they are made up, and that’s the magic that Lowery rides his film on.
The cast is as top notch as they come, each member leaving a memorable mark on the film no matter how brief their screen time. Casey Affleck continues to be one of the most authentic American actors with his portrayal of Bob, not too dissimilar from his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, almost like a blood relative performance in how Bob strives to be seen as this mythical sort of outlaw that doesn’t exist anymore. Rooney Mara is a subtle force of emotion, giving one of her finest performances as Ruth, balancing her eternal feelings of love for Bob and her desire to create a life without him (and move on from him). It’s a dynamic that’s never explicitly stated, but it never has to be, as Mara provides everything you need to understand this emotional pull and tug with her simple presence and line delivery.
Ben Foster seems to be incapable of delivering a bad performance, no matter the overall quality of the film. His performance as Patrick is a quiet one, as the character wrestles with his feelings for Ruth. The scenes between them are both tender and wary in how Foster and Mara intimately guard themselves from each other. Keith Carradine is a commanding presence as Skerritt, wearing his storied past in the way he presents himself. He’s a reformed criminal and out of the game, but he isn’t afraid to step back into his old ways to protect the ones he cares about. The always magnificent Nate Parker has a small yet memorable role as Sweetie, a friend of Bob who helps him lay low. There’s even a brief appearance from the talented Rami Malek, and Charles Baker (Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad!) also makes an intimidating presence.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints established Lowery as an undeniable talent. Later this year, the director will release a live action remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, his first film since 2013. When Lowery signed on, I was confused. Why would he be doing this film? But the footage from the trailer immediately put all confusion and worry to rest, as the same blend of reality and mythicism from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is on full display. Of course Lowery would make a live action remake of Pete’s Dragon. Apparently, Disney saw that he was the perfect man to blend fact and fiction, and apparently they are also happy with what he’s done, inking him to direct a live action adaptation of Peter Pan. Many of us may have shrugged off Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but thankfully the powers that be didn’t, and Lowery can continue to deliver beautiful meditations on myth and legend.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.