FILM: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Director behind the new indie film makes art out of entertainment, genre tropes

SAINTS

Lead actors Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”

All too often genre films are disregarded by serious cinemagoers as slight, immature and of a certain artlessness. David Lowery disagrees.

The young writer and director of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” opening in Portland this Friday for an exclusive run at Cinema 21, grew up loving the genre movies of his youth. When I spoke with him on the phone last week about his latest film, a revisionist western/crime story starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, he ruminated on the endless possibilities genre films offer a filmmaker.

“Genre is the most pliable way to tell a personal story and get it out into the world,” he said. “It’s a really exciting way to explore things that are deep and hopefully rich and thoughtful and still have the movie appeal to a wider audience.”

The most impressive thing about “Saints,” beyond the gorgeous cinematography by Bradford Young and the highly original, perfectly-pitched score by Daniel Hart (the film demands to be seen and heard on the big screen), is the way in which Lowery manipulates the genre elements of this story into something grander, almost mythological. He does so in service to an emotional, intimate story about two lovers who long for each other but whose time may have sadly passed.

The opening text has a fairytale quality: “This was in Texas…” There’s something so right, simple and fresh about these four words, eschewing the now overused once-upon-a-time text scrawl. It clues the audience into the film’s familiar aspects and the ways in which it veers off, carves its own path.

“That phrasing, I wanted to take a different, more-open ended approach,” Lowery said. “I wanted to let people know that this is a movie where the story has come to its end already, and we’re going back to revisit it. The way it’s phrased speaks to the tone of the movie in the same way the title does.”

Ben Foster, David Lowery, Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

Ben Foster, David Lowery, Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

Mara and Affleck are both excellent as the Bonnie and Clyde-like Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon. Their first scene together, lit and captured like a Terrence Malick film, establishes so much with so little screen time. They fight, flirt playfully, confess secrets and make up. We get a sense of the history between these two, they’re flesh and blood, seemingly as real as their bond. They’re so clearly in love, hopeful and full of promise.

Their story begins where most movies of its ilk conclude. They pull of a big heist, off-camera. The next scene has them battling against the cops in a dilapidated farm house. They’re caught, Bob is arrested and Ruth, pregnant, essentially goes free. The film then leaps forward some four years or so. Ruth is raising their daughter, and Bob, who writes her every day, is planning a prison break to reunite with his lost love. The rest of the film uses crime and western genre tropes, motifs and archetypes as background and set dressing, revealing Lowery’s main concern: What do you do when the world keeps giving you clues that a love, no matter how strong, is fated to end badly?

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a dream film, the kind that just aren’t made enough these days, but were commonplace in ‘70s American cinema. It stands alongside other great films from this year—”Mud,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Spring Breakers,” “Upstream Color”—as shining examples of American films that find the sweet spot between art and entertainment, embracing genre but also messing with audience expectations. If you’ve seen the films “Saints” is referencing and playing off of (“Badlands,” “Sugarland Express,” “McCabe and Ms. Miller”), you’ll have a great experience. But this is a film that works just as it is, without footnotes.

Upstream Color,” it should be noted, was edited by Lowery, so he’s having quite a year. For anyone who’s seen it, it’s hard to deny the brilliance of his and Shane Carruth’s cutting work on that film. For Lowery, “Upstream Color,” with its multi-layered match cuts and dense editing, couldn’t have been made even ten years ago, nor does he think audiences could even watch a film like it then: “I love the way storytelling evolves with our brain’s ability to perceive information and you’re always finding these artists who push their storytelling a little bit further that way in which we process information. That helps us take a leap forward.”

Don’t sleep on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It may not play in theaters for long in Portland, as the fall season gets crowded with awards bait and even more blockbusters. I hope it has legs and plays in town for the rest of the year. Word of mouth could build an audience for it, not unlike the ‘70s era in American movies it recalls, when a movie had a chance to gain steam.

In a line near the end of “American History X,”  Edward Furlong talks about ending an essay with a quote: “Someone else has already said it best. So if you can’t top it, steal from them and go out strong.”

That rule applies here. From Mr. Lowery: “I’m using storytelling devices that are time-honored and well-tested. They’re incredibly enjoyable to audiences and to me as a filmmaker. You get to have fun using these tropes that have been around for awhile, and using them to your own advantage so you can dig in and do something that means a lot to you and hopefully to other people as well.”

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Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #77, features the full interview with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery along with a review of the film.

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