There were a surprising number of films from 2013 that owed a lot to the ‘New Hollywood’ era from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, when young filmmakers rebelled against the Hollywood system and made the movies they wanted to make. Coincidentally, many of these filmmakers and actors are still making movies, whether it’s Bruce Dern’s career-defining performance in Nebraska or Martin Scorcese’s gutsy direction of The Wolf of Wall Street. Today’s generation of young filmmakers are indebted to them and some wear it on their sleeve. One such director is David Lowery, whose stunning Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the sequel to Terrence Malick’s Badlands that you never knew you wanted.
Casey Affleck plays Bob Muldoon, a common criminal in Texas. Rooney Mara is Ruth Guthrie, a young woman who falls in love with Bob. The two go on a dangerous, violent crime spree that culminates with Bob’s arrest. Of course, that’s the plot to Malick’s iconic 1973 film. While Malcik’s plot ends there, Lowery does things a bit different, successfully avoiding completely copying the older film.
Lowery seeks to go beyond the boy’s arrest and the girl’s reluctant freedom. Ruth and their child are trying to lead normal lives in the small town near where they were caught. In fact, she becomes friends with Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), the cop who traded shots with Bob during a shootout before his arrest. There’s even a possible romantic relationship that can develop.
Meanwhile, Bob keeps writing letters to Ruth and breaks out of prison. His hope is that once he finally meets with Ruth, they can take their daughter and start a new life together.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints‘ plot is conventional, so there’s no real twist. What sets it apart from any other movie though is its visual style and the way Lowery chooses to tell the story. It’s a basic Western plot – you can almost recast the movie in your mind, picturing which classic Hollywood stars would play which character. So Lowrey’s decision to tell the story with feelings instantly links him to Malick, but again, he takes a different approach.
The film is not linear, so events bring out painful memories for our characters, giving them much more depth than expected. Lowrey juxtaposes Ruth’s growth as a woman and a mother with Bob’s refusal to come to grips with life in jail. We see flashes of them happy together, but Ruth knows those were fleeting moments never to happen again. Bob wants them again. Each memory means something different for the two.
Affleck leads a great cast of actors who give very subdued performances. None of them are overly emotional, letting facial expressions and sparse dialogue do the storytelling. Mara is particularly good at portraying a conflicted character, torn between two men. Foster is also great as a soft-spoken cop. As for Affleck, he continues to show that he can escape the shadow of his older brother Ben Affleck, taking on roles like this outside of Ben’s films. It’s a sublime performance, making the audience feel for a common criminal. Keith Carradine also deserves some kudos, since you can’t make a good western without a Carradine.
On Home Video: IFC decided to release this film through MPI, rather than with the Critierion Collection. Still, the Blu-ray is beautiful and stacked with extras, including Lowrey’s first film, St. Nick.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a film about choices and how a tragic ends are destined to happen when a person refuses to change. Yes, Lowery can be accused of relying too much on techniques that Malick has perfected, like beautiful imagery and narration. However, he does add a bit more plot, extending the story of Badlands to more than just ‘lovers on the run.’ Ain’t Them Bodies Saints doesn’t tell us if these characters really are saints, but if seeing this movie more than once will give me the answer, I’m all for it.