The plot follows the homeward journey of Bob (Casey Affleck), a man born into a life of crime as he returns to his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) and their daughter (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) after a period of separation caused by Bob’s incarceration. However, this simple summary does not begin to describe what the film achieves.
The narrative is constructed through the joint efforts of cinematographer Bradford Young and director Daniel Lowry. Beautiful naturalistic lighting is combined with Lowry’s ethereal, drifting editing, reminiscent of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (released earlier this year). Young’s work on the film led to his award for cinematography in the category of US Drama at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints‘ landscapes are crafted like an early Terrence Malick film; lyrical and abstract, narratively proactive rather than reactive. Composer Daniel Hart’s accompanying original score hones the visual allure of the film into a palpable beauty, poetically weaving the soundtrack into and throughout the scenes.
The plot is at first opaque and drowsy, the colours not yet vibrant and lucid, reflecting the general uncertainty and lack of assurance that the audience might feel given Lowry’s decision to open the film with the big heist, the pay-off that ends the spree, the shoot-out with the police. Rather than providing the denouement of the story, these events are merely the prologue; the more substantial body of the narrative takes place four or five years after the incident, as Bob makes his journey home after escaping from prison. As the film progresses, initial opacity gives way to a vivid narrative on the convictions of love and retribution gradually over the course of its 145 minute running time, with the conclusion a postulation on redemption.
Constituting a metanarrative throughout is Lowry’s own treatise on the death of, not only the old West, but also the classic Hollywood Western. Lowry’s male characters are much the same as their early Hollywood counterparts: charming, charismatic and daring, the fathers archaic and protective, the females holding a knowing glint in their eyes, an awareness of things to come.
Echoing Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and William Faulkner’s Light in August and utilizing cinematic techniques pioneered by Terrance Malick, this film demonstrates that creative heredity does not have to be linear or within specific genres, it can branch horizontally and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints influences are from contemporary cinema and literature. The camera work, sound design and editing all evoke a dream-like atmosphere that ebbs slowly into a realisation that nothing is static: everything grows, shifts and morphs into something new.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is as much a thesis on classic story-telling as it is on the lineage of film-making. Unlike Westerns, it also demonstrates perhaps that riding off into the sunset is not where the real story begins. “…I’ll tell you a story about the future…”