Director: David Lowery
Runtime: 105 minutes
While festivals like Cannes or Venice often feature the latest works from established names in world cinema, Sundance has always prided itself as being a platform for new voices to make themselves heard. The downside to this is that Cannes tends to be overly harsh, while Sundance is often too lenient, even with the good films. Yet 2013 has seen the festival premiere an uncommonly promising slate of first and second feature films.
The latest to hit American theaters is David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which earned strong reviews and won Bradford Young a prize for cinematography. It's easy to see why the film played so well at Sundance. Lowery's sophomore feature film is an accomplished tale of love and crime that immediately brings up memories of Terrence Malick's Badlands. Unlike Badlands, however, Saints is unlikely to go down as a classic. Instead, it's a tantalizing taste of new talent, rather than a full-blown success on its own terms.
Lowery's writing and directing may take cues from early Malick (among others), but Saints is easily distinguishable as a more accessible film. Malick reaches for the heavens; Lowery stays firmly earthbound. Even as fugitive prisoner Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) repeatedly tries to build himself up as a mythic figure, he finds himself cut down to size in ways both friendly and violent. More grounded is Muldoon's girlfriend Ruth (Rooney Mara), who he hopes to reunite with. Separated after Muldoon took the fall for their headline-grabbing crime spree, the pair have gone in different directions in the years they've spent apart. Muldoon is still caught up in the romanticized vision of their romance. He sees himself as Odysseus, on an epic quest to right wrongs and return to his unwavering loved one (as well as a daughter he's never seen). Ruth, however, is now far too grounded to have her head in the clouds.
Even when she learns of Muldoon's escape from prison, she insists to local police officer Wheeler (Ben Foster) that there's no way Muldoon would try and see her again. Thanks to Mara's quiet, stoic turn, Ruth's story retains a touch of ambiguity as the film builds towards it grim finale. In a complete 180 from her icy turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara is wonderfully natural as a young woman thrust into adulthood far too soon. After firing off a round of a local boy's BB gun, she lets a tiny smile etch its way onto her face, an elegant reminder of the life she had when violence seemed to have no real consequences. Her scenes with Foster (an underrated actor who ought to have made it big by now) are made more compelling by the way they highlight the uncertainty running behind her demure appearance.
If Ruth's half of the story is all hushed voices and internal anxiety, Muldoon's half is - on paper - the more exciting and forward-moving portion. Yet it's in the scenes built around Muldoon that Saints runs into some serious hurdles that it can't quite overcome. After a tight opening half hour that establishes Ruth and Muldoon's pre-arrest romance (and some aftermath), Saints struggles to move effectively between its two halves. Lowery's direction is more effective in the more open-ended moments that make up Ruth's story, rather than Muldoon's West Texas outdoor adventures. The pacing falters, and scenes that aim to build either suspense or an ambiguous sense of dread tend to fall flat.
And where Ruth's story has some compelling relationships to keep it moving, Muldoon's feels limited. Affleck's performance, unfortunately, fails to elevate the material. As the outlaw tries to create his myths and maintain a sense of control, Affleck seems slightly uncomfortable. The role requires a boyish sense of enthusiasm and half-hearted swagger, yet Affleck seems a little too sleepy. There's no sense of adventure or danger to his take on the character. As such, he seems too similar to Foster's milquetoast police officer.
As Saints carries on, aided by Young's photography (using only natural light) and Daniel Hart's lovely music, Lowery's script starts to burn through the goodwill established in the opening passages. A trio of nameless antagonists feel too removed from the main plot, and their inclusion is little more than a contrivance to enliven the final act. More compelling are the established roadblocks to Muldoon's goal: the law, and former associate Skerritt (Keith Carradine, a welcome presence). By keeping the conflicts relegated strictly to established forces, the story could have built an intensity rooted in its characters, rather than letting plot mechanics get in the way. As a result, the climax is overcrowded and rushed, and in need of further refinement. Unfortunately, said refinement would have to go past the editing room, and all the way back to the page.
Yet something surprising happens as the film enters its final minutes. After the chaos leading up to the climax, Lowery somehow finds that special balance from the opening section again. Just when I was ready to write the ending off, I found myself once again engaged with the material, and unable to look away. Somewhere along the line, enough of Ain't Them Bodies Saints got under my skin to the point where I was invested, and moved, by its closing. Some films fumble their beginnings or endings. For David Lowery, the issue seems to be with parts of the middle. It's hardly a unique problem, and one that I look forward to seeing the writer/director (hopefully) overcome with his subsequent features. Ain't Them Bodies Saints may not be the unqualified success it was initially hyped as, but it does introduce yet another promising young voice into the independent film world, one who knows how to start and end a quietly compelling tale. It's a teaser of a career who is now in a position to really soar, and maybe even reach the heights of those who influenced him.