This Was In Texas – ★★★★★
A debut feature is always likely to be a mixed bag of influences, ideas and statements of intent. With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, David Lowery has come from nowhere with a crazy bald head and a huge moustache to reveal himself as one of the most exciting new film-makers to come out of America for quite some time.
We’re in the 1970s in Texas with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as Ruth and Bob, two twenty-somethings who get on the wrong side of the law. This sends Bob off to prison and leaving Ruth to have their baby in his absence. A few years pass and Bob escapes from prison leaving Ruth wondering whether he should ever come back for her. The issue is complicated by the fact that the police officer (Ben Foster) injured in the original incident which sent Bob to prison has recently taken a liking to Ruth and her daughter Sylvie. Overseeing the whole thing is the grizzled fatherly figure of Skerritt, played by Keith Carradine.
The story echoes the classic western dramas of the New Hollywood generation of the late 60s and 70s, so you’ve got a bit of the film that started it all in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, alongside work like Terrence Mallick’s Badlands, and directors like Robert Altman. We spend so little time with the central couple of Ruth and Bob together, that really Lowery isn’t glorifying crime and life on the road as an outlaw in the way those other films did, but is instead showing what life afterwards is like. You may feel cheated to see Bob packed up and sent to prison so early in the film but this film is as much about Ruth mellowing and adapting to her maternal instincts as it is Bob failing to make the realisation that he’s missed out on so much of his two girls lives. The big irony present throughout Lowery’s script is that the shoot-out that shaped the film could so easily have seen Bob left out in the wild and Ruth doing 25 to life.
Lowery is a fan of traditional film-making and its no surprise to see him shooting the film on 35mm. His cinematographer Bradford Young explained to Filmmaker magazine…
I didn’t want to go into post to make that look; I was hoping I could embed that energy into the actual negative. With digital, I would have had a lot of responsibility to make it look like something versus bearing witness to it.
This ethos of doing everything in the frame is matched with low level, natural lighting (no modern bulbs) which leaves everything existing in dark yellow and red hues. The film gets so dark at points that you wonder whether you should have brought a torch into the cinema with you to get a better look at this dark, sweaty version of Texas that we’re seeing on-screen.
Performance wise, the dour duo of Affleck and Mara suit the film perfectly, though you get the sense that neither will be getting a call for the next Judd Apatow film as there aren’t too many jokes here. Mara carries the film and its her lead performance that will stick with you. You spend so little time with the central pairing together on screen, but they both imbue the film with a sense of longing and destiny to be with one another. Credit should also go to Foster (trivia: Robin Wright’s boyfriend and fifteen years her junior) as the police officer trying to wangle his way into Ruth’s life, your initial scepticism of his motives slowly subside and it’s a credit to his performance that this sea change in attitude is so believable.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints deserves to be seen by as many people as possible but you get the sense that it’s likely to be one of the year’s great overlooked titles, unlikely to gain any major awards consideration. Every element of the film-making process from writing to capturing the place and performances has been handled perfectly and lines up Lowery and his moustache as ones to watch.
Released to limited cinemas in Ireland on September 6th 2013