‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’: Good influences

August 15, 2013

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(TAKING AN END-OF-SUMMER BREAK; NEXT NEW POST: 8/26/13)

So many films today seem to carry the same references to earlier work, indicating the influences that shaped the filmmaker in his work.

But references are one thing; using those references for fresh inspiration is something else, and that’s what David Lowery has done with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”

Drawing from influences ranging from Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” to Robert Altman’s “Mc Cabe and Mrs. Miller,” to “Bonnie & Clyde” and Carl Franklin’s “One False Move,” Lowery’s film is essentially what would be the finale of most other films. It’s one long, slow build, dropping in on desperate characters at particularly volatile moments to see what happens.

There’s just the barest nod to backstory. When we first encounter Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) in Texas in the early 1970s, they’re having a spat over a misunderstanding of something he said. She finally buys his professions of love, then confesses that they’re going to be parents.

Then they go someplace with a gun. Then we see police chasing them to an old farm house; after a brief shootout, we watch their eventual capture.

And that’s just the first 10 minutes. It’s as bare and sketchy as that.

Yet Lowery gives us the heat and connection between these two characters as they are torn apart – him to jail, her to single parenthood and solitary waiting. From there, Lowery nimbly skips forward in time, triggering an urgent journey as Bob escapes from prison after four years and heads for the small Texas town where Ruth is living with their daughter, whom he’s never seen.

And that’s the movie: Bob, struggling to find a safe way to reach and run away with Ruth; Ruth, aware that every eye in the county is on her as a result. Before long, it’s not just the law – in the form of a sheriff’s deputy (Ben Foster) with a crush on Ruth – that’s after Bob: He’s apparently left a trail of unhappy former partners, who are also haunting the town, waiting for him to show up.

Lowery lets this tense gumbo of love, fear and revenge simmer before it bubbles over at the end. His film has the same terse way with dialogue as one of this summer’s early arthouse hits, “Mud.” Lowery will linger on a shot, letting it sink in – what the characters are thinking, what feelings are driving them – with a minimal use of chit-chat. Nobody talks without needing to in this film, And what they have to say is nearly always either interesting, revealing or both.

He’s got a terrific cast, beginning with the laconic Affleck. Affleck is carving out a niche in the indie world, playing men with their own slippery grasp on ethics and morality. Bob’s no angel but Affleck still makes him likably loose, tough but never a bully.

With her performance here and in this year’s earlier “Side Effects,” Rooney Mara reveals another layer of her ability as an actress who can create characters acting behind masks. Which is, actually, also a pretty good description of Lisbeth Salander. Whatever – Mara has that slightly inpenetrable affect that allows you to see the person squirming beneath the placid surface.

Foster, as he showed in “The Messenger,” is an actor who can work with great delicacy, despite having a powerhouse personality at his disposal. It’s a beautifully etched performance tinged with both hope and regret. And it makes an interesting contrast to Keith Carradine, as Ruth and Bob’s adoptive father, who instills his Fagin-like character with a flinty vulnerability.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is as rewarding a film as I’ve seen all year, one that lets you figure it out for yourself – and still hooks you by the end. This and “Fruitvale Station” are the films of the summer.

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