It’s easy to find influences from Terrence Malick spreading everywhere, for David Lowery’s debut Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is only making itself clear its own homages to Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde among a few. But the fact that it lays upon these influences only is one thing that keeps me from coming closer, for it tries its best to feel soothing as a sight for the eyes and a sound for the ears, and yet on the inside it still feels so thin. I’m not even sure that writer-director David Lowery seemed especially interested in going beyond these stylistic influences to make something all the more compelling. It’s easy to see why Ain’t That Bodies Saints has drawn such a divided reaction towards the manner to which it is channeling Malick for some say it is a loving homage and others say it is a flagrant copy, and unfortunately I happen to be on the other side of the fence.
Told between two distinct narratives, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a pair of lovers in Texas estranged after a botched robbery that results in Mara staying with an injured police deputy after Affleck takes the blame for her own safety. There’s potential for what could easily have become a provocative and emotionally gripping, but it all feels lost in a premise that seems to tread upon familiar waters because of how it feels so conservative of the films that inspired it. I’m not going to go point by point to explain in such great detail what it is that Terrence Malick and Arthur Penn among the lot have managed to do far better than David Lowery inside of his directorial debut, but it almost feels so much like it’s trying to be evocative of New Hollywood Cinema rather than becoming something of its very own.
The narrative choice is one thing that would grab any viewer if only David Lowery knew how to properly tell a story of this sort, but I’m not so sure from the looks of this he had acquired a grasp on such just yet. It would work better on Lowery’s end if both of them had felt rewarding in the same manner, but because there’s hardly any time spent between Mara and Affleck prior to the incarceration, I already find it so hard to feel any sort of chemistry is truly taking place between the two afterwards. It’s clear enough from an outlook that the two of them had been in love at one point, and now they’re almost fading away from each other because of the time they had spent apart, but what more do we get out of each side of the story prior to the events of the robbery? Lowery seems to leave his viewers hanging on this far too much and it only becomes a greater struggle to truly care for what more comes about.
It’s not so much the fault of both Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who are both magnificent performers that work for the roles that they are given, but the script which they are working behind never feels particularly convincing. If there was another way for me to describe what the exchanges between each character seemed to feel like, then I’ll point over to “wannabe Malick.” It’s clear that David Lowery is trying to reach for profundity by means of simplicity especially with the sort of premise that he’s carrying, but the artificiality can be felt on all grounds and it makes the work far more frustrating because it seems as if David Lowery himself is just struggling even to establish the sort of film he wants Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to be. If it wanted to be a story of romance at the expense of a criminal lifestyle by way of Badlands, then I’d rather it stay simple and not pseudo-philosophical. For the voiceover work in Malick’s early work had already presented an idea of fading innocence at the hands of a criminal lifestyle, but Lowery is aiming for something overly complicated and the results are alienating.
But visually, this whole film is a treat. So much about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints works on a technical level, whether it be with the imagery and how it makes use of the Texan locations or the score – for it comes from this approach it could even make itself feel just like a New Hollywood production as if it were made today. Yet the biggest problem we have here is the fact that it becomes far too easy to recognize the artificiality and caring for what we’re presented within this narrative experiment becomes extremely difficult. It seems far too indebted to the style of the period, but substance-wise it also comes off as far too derivative. And even the beautiful score finds itself becoming overused to an almost aggravating degree, for it seems reliant upon dictating to the viewers how they should feel as a certain moment takes place on the screen rather than allow oneself to sink themselves in.
David Lowery has only indicated promise with a frustrating debut. He seems to find his best strengths within what he’s created stylistically, but the familiarity and stretches for depth only make Ain’t Them Bodies Saints an alienating experience altogether. This film could have been something emotionally gripping if it retained the simplicity that allowed the films of the period to work as beautifully as they did, but Lowery seems far too conflicted with the sort of era that he’s choosing to make Ain’t Them Bodies Saints within. And thus for every moment of simple beauty, we only find another attempt at reaching too deep for meaning. But even with all of this coming together, what reason is there for me to care about what happened between Affleck and Mara prior to the incarceration? Even at the rather short length of 96 minutes, it feels so much longer because there’s too little to back everything up.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via IFC Films.
Directed by David Lowery
Screenplay by David Lowery
Produced by Cassian Elwes, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Amy Kaufman, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy
Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Rami Malek, Keith Carradine, Charles Baker, Nate Parker
Release Year: 2013
Running Time: 97 minutes