Even if you haven’t seen St. Nick, David Lowery’s first feature film, there is a good chance you are more familiar with his work than you would initially expect. Lowery edited two of 2013’s best films so far, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Amy Seimetz’ Sun Don’t Shine, and also wrote Pit Stop, a SXSW favorite. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery’s second feature, is a different type of film altogether, although like the films of Carruth and Seimetz it is likely to be called Malickian for its surface similarities to Badlands or Days of Heaven. But to simply write off Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as yet another Malickian pastiche by a new generation of independent filmmakers that seems to love them is selling the work supremely short; tonally and thematically, Lowery’s work holds little resemblance. On the other hand, it does retain one major from Upstream Color in its importance of editing and sound. The editing and use of music in that film led many to liken it to a symphony; Ain’t Them Bodies Saints retains a musical quality, but instead of relying on sound associations and recurring visual patterns, it aims to unfold more like an old folk ballad both in structure and in story and setting than a symphony.
The film opens with Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) resolving a fight, and quickly jumps forward to a point where Bob has escaped prison and Ruth, who unjustly avoided prison altogether, is taking care of the child she has with Bob. Ruth gets a lot of help from a sheriff (Ben Foster) who was shot the day Bob and Ruth were caught, and she has settled down and devotes her time and resources to being a great mother. When the story proper begins, Bob’s prison break means that she might get to reconnect with the one she loves. But is that necessarily what is best for her and their child?
There’s a lot of Malick to be seen there. Terrence Malick’s films are stories of wanderers and sinners looking for redemption and Paradise on Earth. They all possess a spiritual tone, many have religious parallels or plot points. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints appears the same, with the protagonists spending most of the film regretting their past and looking to find a place where they can settle down and be together. Lowery differs, however, by emphasizing how Bob and Ruth may be envisioning different Promised Lands despite their ties and love for one another. More importantly, though, Lowery’s film is full of sentiment and not so wildly subversive and makes reshaping of the past and mythmaking as its subject in a much broader sense. Affleck and Mara’s emotive performances conveys each characters’ sense of longing, and so the film never desires to challenge road or lovers-on-the-run films like Malick’s films so much as to embrace them and, through its beautiful score and its editing, contextualize such romantic, told-and-true stories within American art as a whole. It may carry a similar degree of doomed romanticism, but as the story unfolds it could not feel more different.
Much of the film is shot at or near sunset, granting an unparalleled lyricism that emphasizes its romantic nature. Meanwhile, Lowery’s heavy cross-cutting calls back the folk songs and fiddles that accompany it. Like any number of murder ballads or traditional Americana songs, one verse tells one story, and the next tells the story of another party, escalating until they eventually meet. Lowery gives us a little bit of Bob’s story but interrupts it with some of Ruth’s, but instead of continuing these stories, the next scene plays out like the next verse, telling the story of those who are unwittingly dragged into the middle of things. Likewise, occasionally the main action has to pause so we can catch up with the wronged mentioned in the protagonists’ past. As the film unfolds, parallels are drawn and it becomes apparent that Ruth is dragged unwillingly into the ballad as much as anyone else. At the same time, seemingly simple stories build until qualities of an epic start to poke through. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is David Lowery’s “O’Malley’s Bar” or “Hurricane.” Humble beginnings giving rise to a rich epic, smart and sentimental but never sappy. The placement and prominence of Daniel Hart’s score combined with the no-frills, one-thing-at-a-time storytelling ties the romanticism of lovers-on-the-run of film to the same in music and thus shows how art in general is tied indelibly to both history and folklore until, eventually, the lines begin to blur.
In fact, the film itself is introduced as a past-tense folktale, “it happened in Texas,” which also reveals it to be a meditation on the art of storytelling. One look at the lyrics of “Tom Dooley” or even “Lilies of the West” shows how conversation plays an enormous role in inciting (violent) actions. In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, almost all of the correspondence between our two leads is done through writing letters, and Lowery always gives us a full frame of the written words to emphasize the importance of the word. The words are not spoken this time, but by relying on the written word, the film also emphasizes the record kept and created, just as a film or folk song itself does. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is consciously aware of its place and role in mythmaking, and its ties to music further emphasize the tendency to create nostalgia and reshape the past both of ourselves and of our country.
Indeed, characters are constantly speaking of the past. Bob tells a (fake) story about how he escaped prison; Ruth struggles to tell the sheriff that she shot him those years ago; another cop recounts a story of when the sheriff was in training. Most directly, Bob and Ruth are both attempting, in very different ways, to act like the past never happened, though a trio of characters reminds us that sometimes you can’t escape your past even as you try to mend it retrospectively.
Our past stays with us despite our strongest efforts. America in particular has addressed this theme in the literature of the beat generation and new journalism, the films leading up to and through New Hollywood, and in music ranging from traditional Americana to cultural heroes like Bob Dylan. You can put David Lowery and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in that group, but the work that not only partakes in romantic American tendencies but also reflects on them and, in the end, deconstructs the entire artistic mainstay is rare indeed.