' ' Cinema Romantico: Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Monday, September 02, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

With its 1950's-era characters playing pen pal via romanticized voiceover and any number of painterly shots of the Texas plains, writer/director David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" will invite obvious and not necessarily incorrect comparisons to Terrence Malick. Even so, Lowery's film forges its own path, utilizing an elemental story that gracefully allows its underlying themes and larger points to emerge on their own sweet time. The story is so simple, but its substance is ultimately never-ending.

Opening with an I'm Pregnant Reveal the script quickly, purposely turns the Reveal on its head, pulling the curtain all the way back to show our lovebirds, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara), as vaguely defined Bonnie and Clyde-esque bandits. Alas, a job goes awry, Ruth shoots a local deputy, Bob takes the fall, and is squired, shackled and drawn, off to prison.

This unleashes the first of the film's many impressive achievements, specifically in how it rolls through a handful of years and an abundance of character details without leaving us behind. In only a few scene snippets the entire relationship of Ruth and her daughter Sylvie is convincingly crafted, while in the meantime she and Bob keep the flame burning by exchanging aching letters. Eventually Bob busts out of prison and heads due south, intent on meeting his little girl and re-uniting with his one true love.

This has all the makings of a heightened, yearning fable, a Dust Bowl Inman trying with all his might to get back to Ada and Cold Mountain. And while love is very much on the mind of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" it's a different exploration of that lasting theme. Does true love outweigh responsibility? Mustn't a mother's love all be given to the child? Is compromised love necessary in the name of familial welfare?

The deputy, the same one Ruth plugged with a bullet way back when, Patrick, harbors a consuming if reticent affection for Ruth and little Sylvie. He comes around the house, checks up on them, spends time with them, buys Sylvie gifts. Played by Ben Foster in a brilliant slow burn of a performance, he makes it clear that he thinks and knows more than he says. The focal issue between the two is raised but not addressed. He has his reasons. So does she.

And so too does Affleck convey a character who understands that his presence as an outlaw in the lives of his wife and daughter would inevitably be problematic, a fact he is explicitly reminded of by the low-rent local crime magnate (Keith Carradine) who makes threats should he fail to heed that reminder. In spite this knowledge, Bob cannot stay away. Love, in this case, may not conquer all, done in by its long odds.

Mara is magnetic in the primary role, a young woman forced to grow old beyond her years, settled down for the sake of her child but still with a glimmer in her sorrowful eyes for the way things were. One scene finds her scolding and shooing neighborhood children from the street for fooling around with a BB gun. As punishment she takes away the gun, only to pause and fire a single shot at no one and nothing. A smile creeps across her face. That old criminal spirt remains intact.

Which is what makes Ruth's Choice so difficult, a pining for her fugitive soulmate and a devotion to her role as mother and caretaker. Patrick may be the right man to help raise his daughter but he may not be the man she loves.

These warring ideas come to a head when she reads a letter secretly delivered to her from Patrick in which he advises of his intention to seek her and his daughter out. Mara's reaction will momentarily still your beating heart. She looks to her right, away from the camera, for it is her decision and hers alone, and perhaps she wishes not to share it.

Nevertheless, her wistful smile tells us all we need to know.

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