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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

My Favorite Movie Shot Of 2013

When director David Lowery was asked what the title of his 2013 feature film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” meant, he offered the following reply: “It means that everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done, has the potential to be a good person.” I like this response not merely because I appreciate the message, but because he chose the title “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” to illustrate that message rather than a title that went something like “Good Person.” This is to say, the DNA of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” knows that it is never as cut and dried as simply being a good person – no, life is too emotional and far too complicated for such reductive nonsense.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” turns on the plight of Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), a young single mother to a daughter whose father, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), is locked away in prison, taking the rap for crimes committed by both he and Ruth. So on account of circumstance, Ruth gives up her wayward lifestyle to give all her love to the little one and retires her romantic yearning for Bob. The film’s ardent undercurrent, however, makes us wonder whether or not Ruth really has retired that yearning, or merely repressed it. This question is brought to bear when Bob busts out of prison. Naturally everyone asks Ruth if she thinks home is where he’s headed and she keeps saying no but we keep wondering. Not if he is coming home, mind you, because if fatalism has taught us anything it is that Bob is totally coming home, but if Ruth wants him to come home.

Eventually Bob pens a letter. A stranger covertly delivers it to Ruth. She takes the letter to her porch. She reads it. It tells us what we knew and what Ruth, in those moments when she was honest with herself knew too – Bob is coming home and intends to take Ruth and his daughter away. She finishes the letter. She looks up and to her right.

This is my favorite shot of the year.

It is my favorite shot of the year because of the way cinematographer Bradford Young frames it, with Mara’s dangling hair framing her face, but much more than that it is my favorite shot of the year because the shot is hers as much as ours - more hers than ours. She looks not up, toward the camera, sharing it with us, but away, to the right, keeping it for herself, maintaining a sense of privacy. That’s a rare thing to genuinely witness in the movies – a character’s private thoughts. So often at the movies the audience is allowed intimate and omniscient access, to see everything, because just like life we want to know everything. But in life, we don’t know everything. The more life I live, the more I realize I don’t have much of a handle on life at all. It is a mystery – a beautiful, frustrating mystery, insistently re-forming itself so that even our own thoughts and feelings can become mysteries to ourselves.

That is what this shot implicitly captures, and the more I consider it the more I realize I have no idea what Ruth is thinking in that moment. But I don’t know what she’s thinking in that moment specifically because I think she’s thinking everything – she’s thinking yes and no and please come and please stay away and I-Love-You-So-Much-I-Can’t-Live-Without-You and I-Love-You-So-Much-I-Can-Let-Myself-Live-Without-You.

The characters of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” are established by their essence and ultimately defined by their decisions. Each of those decisions carries immense weight, and none of those decisions are clear-cut nor easily made, if they are even made at all. We know what we should do. We know what we want to do. But, what do we do?

What do we do?

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