Sundance '13: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' Has Subtle, Western Thrills
by Ethan Anderton
January 29, 2013
The western has enjoyed a bit of resurgence over the past few years with installments from the Coen Brothers like No Country for Old Men and True Grit, and others including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, the kimchee western The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and Django Unchained. Now in 2013, Sundance brought some western heat with Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a breakthrough film for writer and director David Lowery, who also worked as an editor on other Sundance 2013 selections like Upstream Color and wrote Pit Stop. The result is a slow-burning, western thriller with magnificent visuals, conservative performances, and a spectacularly twangy score.
After a string of robberies results in the cops catching up with them, a freshly pregnant Ruth (Rooney Mara) and her husband Bob (Casey Affleck) are taken away from a bloody shootout in handcuffs, clinging to each other as they're escorted by police. It opens where most heist films actually end, but Ain't Them Bodies Saints isn't about the money or not getting caught. It's about the love that stays between Ruth and Bob, even as he serves several years in prison, leaving Ruth to take care of their daughter Sylvie, whom Bob has never met, all by herself.
The story really begins when Bob escapes from prison, and slowly and carefully makes his way back to Ruth so they can be a family again. While the law is on the hunt for Bob, along with some other outlaws who are looking for money, he reconnects with old friends like Sweetie (Nate Parker) and his father Skerritt (Keith Carradine). The former helps without any question, even when Officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), the officer shot in the aforementioned shootout but not out for revenge, comes snooping around. His involvement gets a little more serious as he becomes an affectionate part of Ruth and Sylvie's lives, but not in a forward or disrespectful fashion. Meanwhile, Skerritt warns Bob to stay away from Ruth and disappear for their own good. It's this decision that both Ruth and Bob must make that drives the rest of the subtle thriller, and pulls the audience in slowly.
Mara and Affleck are both pitch perfect in their stoic personalities as Ruth and Bob, always seemingly thinking about the other in their pursuit of a future together. There's no overt effort to make you care about either one of them, but it comes naturally as their story unfolds. Meanwhile, Foster gets a meaty role as the reserve police officer, displaying all the traits of a kind, caring man of the law without being a cliche. And finally, Keith Carradine is a top notch supporting cast member as he stands reluctantly strong against his outlaw son for Bob's own good.
The rural landscape of Texas helps serve the film's tone, and the banjo heavy score puts the audience in the thick of this western tale. It's a thriller more focused on characters than plot, and director Lowery hones in on that perfectly. There are no real villains or heroes, but just people, struggling to overcome the mistakes and questionable decisions they made in order to survive. Though you might find yourself rooting for Mara and Affleck, they're hardly considered the good guys. And even when rooting for them, the other side of the equation in Foster's Officer Patrick is so charming and endearing that you can't help but feel for him as well.
In the same vein as filmmakers like Andrew Dominik and the Coen Brothers, director David Lowery brings us into a world that isn't flashy, or necessarily exciting. But Ain't Them Bodies Saints is still a gripping thriller about love, family, and the lengths to which we'll go in order to keep those things close. A contemporary western with all the right beats, this film is full of authentic drama, and a respect for westerns of the past and present. Lowery shows great potential as a filmmaker, and Ain't Them Bodies Saints is more than impressive as a stark, strong and reserved thriller.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 8 out of 10