Full disclosure: with me having seen Terrence Malick’s Badlands for the first time in 35mm and his beautiful, if somewhat minor by his own lofty standards, To the Wonder (TMT Review), within weeks of each other earlier this year, all Malick devotees, including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ director David Lowery, are working at unfair disadvantage for at least the remainder of this calendar year as far as my criticism goes. David Lowery, whose editing on Shane Carruth’s confounding yet fascinating Upstream Color (TMT Review) and on Amy Seimetz’s feature debut, Sun Don’t Shine (TMT Review), were the highlights of both films, once again shows flashes of brilliance and a hell of a lot of potential with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a strong early film, only Lowery’s second feature at the director’s helm and the first to receive relatively wide distribution, but it’s debt to Malick — from the Texas wheat fields and magic hour cinematography to the hushed, deadpan performances, elliptical editing and homespun countryside charm — weighs heavy in the film’s every frame and the thinly conceived script can’t quite bear the load.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play Bob and Ruth — the monosyllabic facsimiles of Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands’ Kit and Holly — a husband and wife who, after committing a robbery, find themselves in a shootout with the cops. After clipping one of the cops on the shoulder, Ruth panics and Bob takes the wrap as well as the prison time that comes along with it. Essentially beginning in the third acts of its two most obvious inspirations, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints becomes a lover on-the-run (rather than a lovers-on-the-run) story once Bob busts out and escapes north before returning south to Texas for his buried treasure and the now four-year-old daughter who he’s never met.
Lowery’s biggest miscalculation is in rushing through the couple’s backstory, criminal hijinks, separation, and the birth and first few years of their daughter Sylvie’s life in the film’s first ten minutes. The aforementioned elliptical editing is in full force here, lending what may as well be the film’s prologue a lyrical and poetic quality, but it’s unfortunately devoid of the emotional and philosophical depth of Malick’s best work. In separating the lovers right at the start, there is no attachment to their connection and the stakes remain low — even once Keith Carradine’s Skerritt, who raised the two (not related by blood) as his own, threatens Bob if he tries to take Ruth and Sylvie away, or when the cop who Ruth shot, Patrick (Ben Foster), begins to get close to Ruth and Sylvie.
By description alone, it may still sound like the film has the potential for greatness, but it ultimately feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of the films it resembles, resting its admittedly stunning cinematography and setting, without injecting the soul that Malick infuses in his work. Of course, the constant comparisons may be a tad unfair as on their own, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints still boasts some fine performances and beautiful aesthetic, but one that most certainly deserves to serve stronger material. As a tone piece, it serves up a rather inviting exterior, even if the hand-clappy soundtrack veers into clichéd Sundance territory a bit too often. Yet, the film’s approach is so clearly striving for a stylized romanticism and grandiose poetic tragedy that its narrative simply does not much, with clichés standing out far too frequently and ultimately overshadowing its beautiful veneer. There’s a good deal to be excited for in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; with another couple films under his belt, hopefully Lowery can develop a more unique voice and make a Badlands of his very own.