Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Bonnie & Clyde By Way of Terrence Malick
In a long and embarrassing introduction to David Lowery’ film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, showing in a sidebar selection here at Cannes, the selectors pointed out the ambitions of the film, noting its audacity in aligning itself with such films as Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde. The film does owe something to the latter in its depiction of a passionate romance between two small-time crooks, but its artistic debt is completely to Malick, especially in terms of cinematography. The use of light is beautiful in this film, and there is a Malickian quality too in the way it frames the characters in their particular environments.
The film sets out its stall very swiftly in a handful of brief exposition scenes, establishing the tender liaison between Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck); we gather that she is pregnant; a shoot-out they are in goes wrong, and Bob ends up in jail, vowing to come back to Ruth when he gets out. The rest of the film deals with Ruth trying to bring up her daughter and get over her lover, and Bob trying to return to his old flame, against the odds.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints definitely aims high: it seeks to tell its story as an American classic, while satirising its own mythology. In a couple of scenes where Bob naively revels in his notoriety, Affleck plays him sensitively and he is given some good lines to feed on, building himself up and creating a dream existence for himself. In these scenes, we are given to understand very well how clumsy his hopes and ambitions are, how he has let himself down. The film also explores male violence well, showing a trio of men surrounding Ruth, giving her love in various ways: Ben Foster’s kind sheriff, who looks after her in Bob’s absence, is the only man to provide total support and goodness; everyone else is caught up in violence. The film shows too how the protagonists are merely children, caught up in what feels to them like a game: in a key scene, Mara fires a gun belonging to some children playing in the street, and you can see the puerile glee on her face before she turns and sees her daughter observing her in incomprehension and fear.
It is sometimes hard to tell what is being fed to us literally: some of the scenes are almost exasperatingly verbose, with Foster and Affleck given a lot of talking to do — aimlessly telling stories, or explaining emotions. Are we supposed to be entranced by their poetry and depth? If so, I rather failed on that count — but I did like so many more things in the film. Its sense of place is good, with well-played country music grounding the film emotionally and in its Texas setting. The light and fields of the area are caught well, too — in daylight shots, the play of sunshine on the protagonists’ faces can be mesmerising. The photography plays on setting in conjunction with its work seizing the characters’ psychological evolution: there is a great deal of intimacy here, notably in the budding relationship between Mara and Foster. In contrast, Casey Affleck is often shown in busy scenes as he continues to travel back to his lover and daughter: often caked in blood and dirt, he is relentless in his pursuit. This balance between the two characters, the way they even each other out and are seen in conjunction with each other, is well maintained throughout, and the structure gives the film a great questing romance.
Further strengths lie in the acting, which is strong at all times - including a soulful turn from Foster. Rooney Mara does a good job of highlighting her character’s evolution from thoughtless girl to tired, fragile young mother - and Affleck, as I said, shows his character’s self-delusion while also playing him as a burning romantic.
There is good music in the film, including two sweet songs sung by Mara and Foster, and the sound is also well done; overall, the film does suffer from having too much music, with a constant soundscape always screwing over the film’s more nuanced moments. In the main, however, this is an intelligent and sensitive piece of filmmaking which, though it doesn’t quite achieve the instant classic status it’s shooting for, mostly hits its marks.