The chorus of reactions to David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, from the positive to the negative, has acknowledged Terrence Malick’s influence on his work. Hushed voiceovers, exquisite cinematography, Western iconography, and doomed romance are elements that comprise Lowrey’s work, though when looked upon as a whole, the picture doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. Other considerations and influences can perhaps be made, dashes of Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us and McCabe & Mrs. Miller can be found ruminating in the foreground, along with the sort of side characters that would be more at home in a Cormac McCarthy novel. But these influences latch onto the skeletal remains of a narrative body that is barely there to begin with, amounting to many an idea, but no connective tissue to unite it all together.
A sweeping sun-drenched opening promises a bounty of riches as Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) confess their love before engaging in a series of crimes that tear the two apart. Bob takes the fall as his pregnant wife is acquitted – forcing Ruth to care for a child as Bob serves a 25 to life sentence. The opening sequence and first act suggest a ruminative journey that will bring the two lovers together, with the intrinsic nature of the law interjecting. And it’s precisely the overarching narrative drive that Lowery adopts. But the manner in which he deploys this structure comes across as a plodding and lethargic. Perhaps it’s the obvious influences on his work, but Ain’t Them Bodies Saints never comes across as anything substantive, where Lowery aims to ape the films of his adoration rather than contribute to the cinematic language itself. Take David Gordon Green as an example. His debut feature George Washington borrowed heavily from the cinematic flourishes that define much of Malick’s work. But Green’s probing and specificity of social milieu was a balance of borrowed style and a definitive voice.
While some have suggested that Lowery’s direction is the picture’s most accomplished feature, I would suggest that it’s the most ill-defined and voiceless. Lowery’s use of hushed voiceover looks to propel the narrative though often sounds too strained to register an uptick to the monotonous rhythm of the film. And while Bradford Young’s lensing captures its fair share of idyllic moments, it actually bares little intrinsic value to Lowery’s thematic intent. It’s almost as if the two minds are working in opposition as Young’s cinematography suggests flickering rural hope while Lowery’s scripting and deployment of voiceover seeks to extinguish it. The casting is a highlight, though further accentuates the problems in Lowery’s direction and scripting – the internalized performances of Rooney Mara and Ben Foster are exceptional, though feel as though belonging to an entirely different film when seen in opposition to scenes that feature Casey Affleck and Keith Carradine. All these performers give the material everything they have and more, making Ain’t Them Bodies Saints an exceptional acting showcase, but this overarching disjointed feeling – as if all these contributors are working without the other’s knowledge – amounts to a film of little feeling, of little life.