In 2005, the band Blood on the Wall released Awesomer, an album built exclusively upon the nostalgia of early 90s alt-rock. That should sound wonderful and awesome because it is. Listening to that album, you could point gleefully to all your favorite bands they were aping – PJ Harvey, The Pixies, Nirvana, Pavement, Sebadoh.
“Oh shit! Oh God! I remember this. I fucking love this sound,” you would shout to yourself, your speakers turned up to 11, half wishing you could be listening on a cassette tape, the way this noise was meant to be heard. And when the album ended, you’d dive into your CDs and pull out every awesome early 90s rock album you owned and would declare, “I’m only listening to this for the next month,” because the 90s required unnecessarily exaggerated declarations of earnestness.
So you dusted off your old copy of Slanted and Enchanted, prepared yourself for the ride. Except it wasn’t quite right. It just…I don’t know…it didn’t sound quite like how you remembered it. “I remember it being louder/angrier/smarter.” You did the same with Rid of Me. Doolittle. Last Splash. You knew these albums by heart, but they became bigger, grander in your memory of them. And that’s when you realized that Awesomer doesn’t ape the sound of your favorite bands, it apes the memory of the sound of your favorite bands. It’s a representation of nostalgia itself, which is almost more impressive.
David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is Awesomer‘s cinematic equivalent for 1970s Westerns. With Bradford Young’s camera perpetually on the move, the film floats through our sepia-toned memories of the 70s — the plaid, the facial hair, the Dukes of Hazzard cop cars, Little House on the Prairie and The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Sergio Leone and Francis Ford Coppola, good ol’ boys and gangsters — until we’re left with a timeless work that feels terribly familiar but utterly unplaceable. It is at once of the 1970s, the 1870s, and today.
The story is a tale of two bandits in love, Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon, played excellently by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who find themselves in a shootout with the police after a bank robbery. Ruth shoots a local cop, but Bob takes the rap and goes to prison while Ruth gives birth to their baby girl. Four years later, Bob escapes prison – his oral account of how he did so is one of the film’s highlights – and sets out to reunite and runaway with his long lost family. Unbeknownst to Bob, of course, the victim of Ruth’s bullet, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), has taken to courting his estranged wife.
As far as stories go, this one is a touch pedestrian. While Lowery goes to lengths to hide details of characters’ relations to one another and their motivations for doing some of the things they do, there’s still not much that feels unexpected or particularly new. The pacing is slow and deliberate, which works wonders for a dream-like dirge down memory lane, but can also be trying on the patience of an audience member fighting any modicum of fatigue. The acting, on the other hand, is top notch, top to bottom (even featuring a Skinny Pete cameo, for all you Breaking Bad fans, out there). Casey Affleck is superb as the sublimely named Bob Muldoon – really, all the names are fantastic. He saunters about the frame with a mix of devil-may-care charisma and childlike naiveté that exposes a tragic vulnerability reserved for only a few actors. Certainly a vulnerability his brother could never match. Not that his supporting role in Good Will Hunting was the “perfect” role for him, but he feels like an actor who will forever be the “little brother” — well-meaning and doing the best he can given the circumstances.
Visually, the film can scarcely be beat. Young’s camera floats effortlessly and perpetually through a small secluded town in rural Texas using flares from sunsets, headlights, or barroom lightbulbs to accent the glowing, faded leather pallet of images that look like they could have fallen out of a dusty trunk, once forgotten, now dug up from some dank basement. The camera rarely moves quickly, pushing, pulling, and tracking ever so subtly, but the effect is the exact weightlessness of dreams.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was developed in the Sundance Screenwriters lab and is David Lowery’s second feature film. Even so, its execution is astonishingly confident and austere, a product of either utter assuredness or unfailing hubris. Probably quite a bit of both, and it’s doubtful you could get a film made in Hollywood without either. Lowery’s vision is consistent throughout; the characters are real and defined, what’s said is hardly ever more important than what’s left unsaid, the genre, tone, and style are all exacting. And the pacing, though it tends to drag, never wavers. There’s certainly something to be said for such a sure handed, confident sophomore film. And here, Lowery’s unsullied vision and sure hand have managed to perfectly capture our memories of a time and place that never truly existed.