' ' Cinema Romantico: Realism & Romance and Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Monday, September 08, 2014

Realism & Romance and Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) has just broken out of prison and made the perilous journey home to Meridian, Texas. There he hides out with his pal Sweetie (Nate Parker). It’s late at night, they crack a couple cold ones and sit down at a dusty wooden table.

Sweetie: "So how'd you do it?"
Bob: "What, get out? I just started walking. Like I said I would."
Sweetie: "You just walked out?"
Bob: "Yup."
Sweetie: "How does that work?"
Bob: "Well, you know the guards come by your cell every night. They'd say 'lights out' and rattle bars with their sticks. This one guard, he always used to joke and carry on with us. And one night I said, 'Well, I won't be seeing you much longer. Figure I'll be outta here in about ten days.' He said, 'How you gonna do it?' I said, 'I'll just walk right out the door.' He said they'd stop me. I said, 'No, sir. I've got better things to do.' He said, 'That's not how it works.' I said, 'It only works that way because you think it has to. See, I've got a higher calling. I've got a wife and a little girl who needs her daddy.' Then he asked what did I know about a higher calling. He said I'd have to answer to God and the devil for the things I done. I tell him, 'Sir, I used to the devil. And now I'm just a man. As the days tick by, ten, nine, eight, and on the last day, the bars open up, and I'm gonna walk right out.'"


Sweetie: "They said you jumped off a work truck."
Bob: "Yeah. Well."

Even without seeing the film, the intent of this particular exchange is likely clear – Bob reciting a tall tale and the curiously named Sweetie quickly calling it as the tall tale it is. And within this sequence, the entire ethos of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is brought to the forefront, a clashing of ideals in the slow sweaty night. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens with a title card that simply avows “This Was In Texas.” When in Texas? We don’t really know, the film never explicitly says. Reviews, like Andrew O’Hehir’s, cite the mid-70’s, and while I suppose technology and costuming line up with this assertion, the technical setting seems more like an aesthetic choice. As O’Hehir also notes, the film is very much meant to evoke Terrence Malick’s “Badlands”, and “Badlands” was very much meant to evoke the Starkweather/Fugate murders of the late 50’s, and so even if “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is set in the 70’s, it sorta feels more like the 50’s. Yet, at the same time, it feels like a movie that’s seen “Badlands.” There is undoubtedly a certain cinematic style it strives to emulate, and because we can feel this emulation, we can also feel the film’s modernity.

Consider the song that plays over the above exchange. It comes across soulfully old school, like one of those uber-deep cuts you’d find on a compilations record. I could hardly fathom I’d never heard it, and after the film I went searching for it. Lo and behold, it’s a modern-day track, sung by an Andrew Tinker with whom I am entirely unfamiliar, near as I can tell recorded strictly for the film. In other words, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is both classical and modern, and it blurs those lines repeatedly, taking a tall tale - as old as Odysseus striking for Ithaca, as new as Nicole Kidman waiting on Cold Mountain - and undercutting it with doses of sensibility. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Ruth (Rooney Mara), a wife to Bob but a mother to her child. She feels love for Bob and the hope that he will come and spirit them away, and that is the mark of a romantic. She feels love for her daughter and knows that a fugitive, even if it’s the father, entering her daughter’s life would only invite trouble, and that is the mark of a realist. And the film is pitched in the no-man’s-land between these ideals, in the rumbling, the push and pull of Ruth’s soul. And I suppose this is why the film so strongly appeals to me - because I am a romantic constantly feeling the pull of reality.

Skerritt (Keith Carradine) is a local shopowner who took in Bob and Ruth and basically raised them. He wants to protect Ruth by keeping Bob away, even if he seems to know full well that no matter how much he tries to keep Bob away, he can’t necessarily ensure Ruth’s protection. (A push/pull of its own.) He hires a gang of three to deal with Bob and they show up at his shop. One of them ogles an old-time pistol and wonders what the placard next to it is all about. Skerritt explains it’s a list of all the men who have met their end at the barrel of that pistol. “Sounds like bullshit to me,” the guy says. “Yeah,” Skerritt says, “it probably is.” But you can’t tell he doesn’t really believe it’s bullshit. I don’t really believe it’s bullshit either.

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