Writer/Director David Lowery crafts a visually arresting feature, one at least as beautiful as Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. This one even has a strong narrative with subtle character development and tremendous performances.
Cinematography is easily the film’s greatest strength. The camera is always poetic, always perfectly placed, whether observing nature, faces, houses or mundane possessions. It helps to register emotion, suspense or intrigue, whichever the scene requires.
Partially because Lowery embraces darkness. Here the lighting is so complex that the screen often goes near black, a fact that actually benefits Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. First, Lowery and his crew light their film so well that we always know what’s happening, even if we cannot see every detail. Second, and more importantly, the darkness increases our anticipation for what comes next.
The film’s score is equally compelling, not just because it is beautiful music, but also because it punctuates scenes remarkably well. When actors are speaking, the score usually silences, thereby cueing us to pay attention. When dialogue stops, the score restarts, setting the scene’s tone and driving the action forward.
In other words, David Lowery shows incredible knack for artistic filmmaking.
The actors cannot have disappointed their director. Rooney Mara is amazing as Ruth Guthrie, showing grief, determination and inner strength throughout, even when not speaking. Casey Affleck is almost as good as Bob Muldoon, and so is Ben Foster as Patrick Wheeler.
All three performances are layered and deep.
As are their characters. Neither Ruth, Bob nor Patrick fundamentally change over the course of the picture’s events, but all of them develop, sometimes in surprising ways.
The actors, screenplay, camera work and score promise emotional catharsis.
But that is where Lowery missteps. The moment Ruth and Bob are separated, he sets a compellingly somber tone, one mixed with slight doses of hope. It is actually a strength for most of the film, except that the director never escalates it.
Even in the movie’s final act, the score remains similar to what came before; the shots and lighting are reminiscent; the performances are consistent throughout; and so forth. None of the elements reach crescendo to match the screenplay’s climax, a fact that leaves Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ conclusion less emotionally impacting than expected. Or than it intends to be.
Yet, this is a good movie, one I recommend. I just wish the ending had been as dynamic as the rest of the film.