Movie review: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' will capture your heart

For the News-DemocratAugust 29, 2013 

What It's About

A work of cinematic art, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is unlike anything else playing at a theater near you. Similar to a folk song with lyrics you mull over for days, this film is achingly beautiful, and striking in mood and atmosphere.

Set in the Texas Hill Country in the '70s, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are a young couple whose hope for a long life together is thwarted when he's sent away to prison. (To tell you more would spoil the movie). Their daughter is born while he's in captivity, and his dream of uniting with his family keeps him going.

He successfully breaks out after numerous tries, finally heading home to see his Ruth and Sylvie. Throughout this odyssey, the power of love and commitment are contemplated, as characters deal with loneliness, despair, and the harsh reality of consequences.

Performances

The solid cast builds further on their growing reputations. Casey Affleck's narration, through his character's letters to Ruth -- written with palpable yearning -- is haunting. He deeply feels this character's joys and sorrows, and listeners cling to each word.

His portrayal is redolent with emotion, a man of few words but simply the right ones.

Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") is a revelation here. Like Affleck, she is a natural, assuming her character's heartache and world-weary disposition with simple grace. There is not a false note in accent or portrayal. Both are captivating in a way that people will compare it to "Badlands" or "Bonnie and Clyde" folklore, but this piece is distinctive on its own.

The criminally underrated Ben Foster ("The Messenger") stoicly plays the local lawman with an unwavering sense of duty and honor. Someday, Foster will have a breakthrough role and get the attention he deserves.

A refreshing sight to see is Keith Carradine as Skerritt, a town leader and businessman who is like a father figure to Bob and Ruth, but rules with an iron fist.

What Works

Writer-Director David Lowery has made a thoughtful film that unfolds lyrically, and presents much power in solitude. It is in quiet scenes, like Sunday morning in church, or evening rituals, where characters reveal themselves.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is breathtaking, contrasting sparse rural landscapes with the natural beauty of the land -- often composed like paintings. He received the cinematography award at Sundance for his naturalistic lighting and evoking the state of mind of his characters.

From the first frames, the film harkens back to a gentler time, and doesn't need to be fussy. Lowery, whose skills as an editor and cinematographer came in handy, has wisely stripped down the story to the essentials, like a poem. Yet, he gave the actors much room to build their fragile characters. He is one to watch.

What Doesn't Work

Those not comfortable with the languid pacing and slow unfolding of the story will grow impatient. However, the unpretentious film is so mesmerizing, this can be overlooked.

Know that this isn't a run-of-the-mill doomed romance, or Terrence Malick-light, and immerse yourself in a spellbinding, very special film that you won't soon forget.

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Director: David Lowery

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine, Nate Parker

Length: 1:45

Rated: Unrated

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