Film review: Soulful ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ Cuts to the Marrow

Ain't Them Bodies Saints 3Many films only prick the skin; a few go all the way to bone marrow. In that latter category is writer-director David Lowery’s soulful Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Since its warm reception at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and a special Critics’ Week screening at Cannes the movie has been compared repeatedly with Terrence Malick’s classic Badlands, and even the seminal Bonnie and Clyde, because its protagonists (played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) are young Texas lovers who run afoul of the law. But there are perhaps more echoes from such a film as The Last Picture Show in its still-waters-run-deep small-town tensions and aching intimacy.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints 2The rustic layout of Texas Hill Country in the 1970s is vividly captured by the brownish-red hue cinematographer Bradford Young often casts over the proceedings and nicely underpinned by Daniel Hart’s body-percussion, strings-supported folk score. Lowery smartly scripts this character study by not wasting great time or effort laying out the basic plot; when we first meet Bob (Affleck) and Ruth (Mara) she says, “I don’t want to go to jail,” followed quickly by “And I think I’m gonna have a baby.” The wayward lovers are then involved in a shootout with the law where an officer (Ben Foster, playing one of the good guys this go-around) gets wounded by Ruth.

Bob takes the fall for Ruth’s violent act and goes to jail while she gives birth to their daughter. Four years later Bob breaks out of prison, determined to see his offspring for the first time. With authorities on his tail – as well as some baddies who menacingly interact with Ruth’s protector Skeritt (Keith Carradine) – and only his buddy Sweetie (Nate Parker) to help we know from the start this will all end in tears.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints 5Of course in a character study like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – the cryptic title is based on lyrics to an old song that Lowery actually recalled inaccurately – it’s the people that matter and those people come to life brilliantly thanks to the assembled cast. Mara gives us a resilient but conflicted woman whose warmth and basic goodness glows like an early-evening sun; Affleck’s anti-hero keeps our sympathies despite the destruction he has directly and indirectly created; Foster’s Patrick is a kind man whose longing for Ruth is clear from the moment we see him gazing as her in church; Parker’s ex-con knows how to walk the tightrope between his friend and the powers that be; and Carradine is marvelously authoritative but cagey as he makes us wonder where Skeritt’s loyalties ultimately lie.

The screening of this poetic film serves as the umpteenth reminder of why Belcourt Theatre is one of Nashville’s great artistic venues. (And in another only-at-the-Belcourt offering Lowery will be discussing the film via Skype after tonight’s 8:15 screening.) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints creatively cuts into the bone as only good cinema can, and once again the treasure known as the Belcourt makes sure we don’t miss out.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints 1Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (www.ifcfilms.com/films/aintthembodiessaints) opens today (Sept. 13) in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (www.belcourt.org), 2102 Belcourt Ave. For showtimes and tickets click here; a discussion via Skype with director David Lowery follows today’s 8:15 p.m. screening. Rated R for some violence, 105 min. Written and directed by Lowery. Starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine and Nate Parker.

 

 

*Photos by Steve Dietl courtesy IFC Films.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).