‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ Review: Stunning Cinematography Overwhelms a Slight Story

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Writer-director David Lowery’s gorgeous film boasts powerful performances, but gets stuck as the plot spins its wheels

There’s a very talented ensemble of actors in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” but the real star of the movie is director of photography Bradford Young (“Pariah,” “Middle of Nowhere”) who renders the Texas locations in the kind of butterscotch shadows and magic-hour auras and screen-door silhouettes that call to mind classics like “Days of Heaven.”

It’s a gorgeous film to behold, but writer-director David Lowery gets so wrapped up in the visuals that the storytelling lags at critical moments. Even after he’s made it clear how things are going to be resolved, he staves off the inevitable with one more sunset, one more weathered pickup truck driving down a dirt road, one more dimly-lit roadhouse.

(Lowery, it should be noted, is one of American independent film’s busiest Renaissance men these days; at this year’s Sundance, he represented not just this film but also “Upstream Color,” which he edited, and “Pit Stop,” which he co-wrote.)

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“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” boasts a great deal of care and talent and creativity, but it will be up to individual viewers to decide whether its visual pleasures outweigh the script’s case of get-on-with-it-itis; as for me, I went from enraptured to restless, but I still admire the film’s many virtues.

We begin with young lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck); in one long take, they squabble and reconcile the way a young couple would, but there are two more vital pieces of information to learn at the end of the scene. Ruth is pregnant, and she’s also an accomplice to Bob’s crimes. At a shoot-out with the police, Ruth hits local cop Patrick (Ben Foster) in the arm, but Bob takes the blame and says that Ruth was just along for the ride.

Cut to a few years later: Ruth is still living in the same small town, raising daughter Sylvie (played by Jacklynn Smith and Kennadie Smith) under the watchful eye of Bob’s adoptive father Skerritt (Keith Carradine). Bob, longing to run away with Ruth and Sylvie, escapes from prison. Patrick starts keeping an eye on Ruth, since everyone knows Bob is heading straight to wherever she is, and Ruth and Patrick find themselves getting along.

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That’s pretty much all that happens in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” and it could certainly be enough in the hands of a filmmaker more capable of spreading out the tale, supplying revelations and character insight along the way to keep things compelling. But Lowery doesn’t seem particularly interested in any kind of forward momentum. We know who these people are, and what they want, and what’s likely to be the outcome, and then we’re forced to wait for it all to happen.

Despite the script’s flaws, Mara, Affleck and Foster all turn in splendid performances. There’s often a danger of actors getting condescending when they play relatively inarticulate characters, but even though Ruth and Bob and Patrick aren’t chatty urbanites, they communicate a great deal through their silences and faces and body language. It never feels like these actors are talking down to the material, and they create vivid personalities under Lowery’s assured guidance.

And make no mistake, Lowery is a talent to watch; the complex and opaque “Upstream Color” lives and dies by its editing, the screenplay of “Pit Stop” ranks among the year’s best, and his skill as a director permeates every frame of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” This film’s script doesn’t equal his other work this year, but he’s a rising film talent who’s only just begun to leave his mark.