Hollywood has had a fascination in telling the private and personal stories of those living just outside the law probably as long as there’s been this thing called film. And why wouldn’t it? The press certainly has made a mint off of glamorizing the lifestyles of the desperate and the depraved. One could even make a case that it was reporters who truly brought the story of BONNIE & CLYDE to life. The reading public bought the legend (instead of the facts) hook, line, and sinker, so Tinseltown scribes are all-too-happy to one-up the legend whatever chance they get … which is essentially what writer/director David Lowery has tried to do with his latest, AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Bob Muldoon (played by critical darling Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are one part lovers and two parts felon. Their love can’t quite survive a shoot-out in the hills of Texas, but when Ruth shoots local officer Patrick Wheeler (the always appreciated Ben Foster) in the crossfire, Bob steps up and does what he sees as noble: he takes the blame, and he’s sentenced to 25 years for the deed. As time goes by, Ruth gives birth to Bob’s daughter – Sylvie (Jacklynn Smith) – and Bob breaks out of prison, bound and determined to be reunited with his family. But can their love survive in a landscape that only sees them as criminals?
Filmdom loves to tell the stories of doomed love amongst thieves, and that’s basically what you get with AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS. For all of the effort Lowery, Affleck and even Keith Carradine (in a small role as Ruth’s neighborly benefactor) put into this, I personally just didn’t care for any of these characters. Mara’s performance is the only thing here that felt legitimate – her character has a full arc as she slowly begins to realize that the girl she was at the start of this entire affair is a far cry from the young, single mother toward the end – but everyone else seriously seemed to be wandering fairly aimlessly from one scene to the next, one line to the next, and it all felt forced down my throat.
Yes, yes, yes. The film is exquisitely photographed, and every small detail is given a layer of depth; still, in the final estimation, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was being force fed a portrait of the doomed love affair while still not caring about the actual relationship. Gone was the romance; there never appeared a legitimate spark between Ruth and Bob – much of who they are as a couple is delivered in a handful of scenes at the onset before they’re suddenly fleeing the police and the main thrust of the story is set in motion. Because I didn’t accept that they were in love, I had no overwhelming desire to see them unified once more.
While I’m nitpicking, would it have been too much for a viewer to ask that Lowery had his cast actually speak two shakes louder than a whisper? Everyone goes about in this motion picture saying every line as though it’s immeasurably important, and that just wasn’t the case. From one whispered line to the next raspy one, everything felt too theatrically choreographed for me to accept any of it as real emotion.
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013) is produced by Sailor Bear, Parts and Labor, IFC Films, Evolution Independent, Paradox Entertainment, Primary Productions, Lagniappe Films, and Upload Films. DVD distribution is being handled through MPI Media Group. As for the technical specifications, SAINTS has the venerable Harvey Weinstein’s name all over it, so you can bet that no expense was spared in bringing the highest quality sights and sounds to the work; there’s some impressive cinematography in there, but there’s also a fair amount of bloat for my tastes. As can be expected these days when a critical darling gets DVD release, there’s a veritable lion’s share of extras here: a making of documentary, deleted scenes, music video, behind-the-scenes short, teasers and trailers, and a separate disc containing director Lowery’s first feature (ST. NICK). So if this film was your cup of tea, then you’re in for hours of additional exploration – kudos to all involved as that’s the kind of package I personally feel more films should get.
RECOMMENDED. I know I’m in the minority with this one – not that there’s anything wrong with it – but AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS felt like one of those rare films that’s constructed entirely to be a critical darling, leaving most of any value to the story lost on the masses. It’s well made. It’s well photographed. It has a few well-rendered moments of poignancy. Still, in the end, all it felt so obviously manufactured that I just couldn’t care even modestly for these people – except for appreciating Mara’s and Foster’s gifts as craftsmen. Everybody else? Meh. They got what they deserved.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with an advance DVD copy of AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.