January 28, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”


There’s a tendency to compare any slow-moving, beautifully-photographed drama with an abundance of natural imagery to the films of Terence Malick, but that’s unfair to the very particular surreal spirituality Malick brings even to his more insufferable projects.  In the case of AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, the more apt comparison is probably to Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, even though that film is set during the Depression rather than the early 70s.  Bodies, though, mostly lacks both Malick’s strange artistry and Altman’s genius for details of character.

The couple in Bodies rarely shares the screen.  After a prologue sequence establishing that Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are criminals who are very much in love (Ruth is pregnant with their baby), and the events of the shootout that separates them, Bob goes to jail and we cut forward more than 4 years.  Ruth now lives with daughter Sylvie in a house purchased for her by next-door-neighbor and storeowner Skerritt (Keith Carradine, his presence a reference to Thieves, and his name perhaps a nod to Tom Skerritt’s role in Altman’s MASH), although Skerritt’s reasons for supporting Ruth are never quite clear.  Deputy Wheeler (Ben Foster) looks on Ruth adoringly, but makes no overt move on her, aware that her heart is with Bob.

The film’s events are set in motion when Bob escapes from prison.  Everyone assumes that he’s headed for Ruth and his daughter, and a trio of mysterious gunslingers show up in town shortly afterward.  After that, it’s a matter of waiting for Bob to make his tortuous way to Ruth’s house, a destination he doesn’t reach until most of Ain’t Them Bodies‘ running time is done.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints fits into a subcategory of action film that infuses the genre with heavy visual and thematic weight, like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Lawless, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James… and Killing Them Softly, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.  Seemingly every shot in Bodies is gorgeously photographed by Bradford Young (of Pariah and Middle of Nowhere) in the light of sunset or dawn, or a replica thereof (the interiors, too, are usually in near-darkness).  Young won a special award for cinematography from the Sundance jury, and deservedly so.  The production design by Jade Healy is exactly judged (just look at the shelves of Carradine’s store), and there’s a lovely, unusual score by David Hart.

There isn’t, however, a great deal of drama.  Apart from the ultimate outbreaks of violence in the final reel, everything in Bodies seems to be on “mute,” as Bob bides his time on the outskirts of town, and Ruth ruminates about what would be best for her and Sylvie if and when Bob returns.  The movie has more reverie than story, aside from Wheeler’s hesitant steps toward Ruth, and the movie largely concerns itself with moody shots of landscape and murmured conversations.  (There’s a reason why none of the recent films noted above were particularly successful with audiences.)

Mara is, once again, an extremely strong presence on screen, and she has the benefit of the script’s most developed character.  Affleck has experience in this kind of film from Jesse James, and he’s comfortable playing second place to the overall visual style, while Foster and Carradine give minimalist performances.

Patience for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints will vary with viewers’ tolerance for films that value mood over story and pace.  It’s a beautifully crafted work, admirable but for its insistence on being admired.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."