by Carrie Specht
There’s been a lot of talk, or “buzz” about one of the latest indie darlings, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Much of this talk is well earned, and yet there is some purely momentum-generated hype going on here. You know the kind that comes from people jumping on an already popular bandwagon. No doubt about it, this is a visually beautiful film that flows like an ode to a more lyrical style of filmmaking of an age gone by – the type of which we don’t see in today’s movie houses. However, the story itself never quite comes together as a whole. Too many important elements to the plot are left unsaid, and these key points would clarify a somewhat murky storyline. That is not to say that the individual parts, such as the stellar performances and keen cinematography are not remarkable on their own. Yet, ultimately the individual parts do outweigh the whole. Significantly.
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) provide two truly exceptional performances as the young lovers who have a rather traumatic, although deserved misadventure with the law early on in the movie. He naturally takes the blame, and she goes off and proceeds to live a solitary life to wait for him under the watchful eye of her neighbor and their mentor, the always reliably watchable Keith Carradine (still a mighty handsome figure on the silver screen since his appearances in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville). Ben Foster (The Messenger, 3:10 to Yuma) does an impressive job conveying the poignancy behind the young deputy sheriff who suffered from the lovers’ mistake and now noticeably longs to be something more to our heroine and her little girl.
So, with so many great elements (including the aforementioned cinematography created by Bradford Young) why am I not raving about this festival darling? To paraphrase a well-known quote about Los Angeles, “there’s no there, there” in the plot. What do I mean? The mysterious connection between Carradine and his two protégé’s is never truly explained. The audience is just suppose to go with it, which I think is sloppy filmmaking. A similar problem exists within the budding relationship between Mara and Foster, not to mention a completely unaddressed reason for a fifth character to risk his own precarious freedom and even his life to aid Affleck in his pursuit to reunite with Mara. Too many holes to be covered by the greatly admired beauty of this film.
I never accept great performances over content, and that’s what’s lacking. Yes, the main characters are very compelling, but when you rob both the actors and the audience the opportunity to experience the fulfillment of a major plot point by having crucial action happen off screen you’ve lost major credibility points, and created a film that is likely to fall through the cracks once the initial glow of the artificially amped popularity has faded. Some will not mind these shortcomings and join the parade of ardent admires, but I am certain that these same people will not remember their current favorite movie in a year’s time. There are just too many parts askew to achieve a satisfying whole no matter how much you focus on the best parts. Anatomy just works that way.