Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is little more than a New Hollywood pastiche, a loving and careful waxworks recreation of a style and type of cinema that was at one time, a great many years and Hollywood eras ago, the most lively and startling thing to ever happen to American cinema. As a film, David Lowery’s recreation of that style has not one new idea to bring to the table the New Hollywood built out of rustic, unpolished wood and then abandoned long ago. All Lowery is doing is digging through scrap heap, separating out the noble rust from the ignoble variety, and refashioning it into a garage sculpture where the very nature of the metal – falling apart, worn to the point of triteness – is a badge of honor, a reminder of how old this sort of tale really is, and how lively it can still feel when it is carted out after it hasn’t seen the light of day in too long. It doesn’t offer a new idea, but it offers a more humble reminder: in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, we now see not only a scorching fresh breath into the room of Hollywood’s musty old classicism, but a peculiar, well-worn form of old-timey comfort. Those New Hollywood films are now part of the classic American cinematic tradition, and Lowery is merely playing a requiem for them.
With a tale that is, pointedly, as old as dirt. It’s practically eldritch. Lowery, who wrote and directed, focuses on male outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) who escapes from prison to reconnect with his partner in love and crime Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and to meet, for the first time, the child he fathered with her. If it sounds familiar, it is because the base “male and female outlaws on the run” beginning of the film was the focus of arguably the very first divining rod film of the original New Hollywood American New Wave, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Sure, Lowery’s film is the story of Bonnie and Clyde surviving, separating for a few years, and then trying to reconnect, rather than dying in a fiery hailstorm at the end, but the subject matter is a variation and ode to that 1967 film, and not necessarily a meaningful rejection of it.
But anybody can make a film about a pair of lovers caught in crime, just trying to make it right. It takes a different sort of tell it well, and that is where Lowery comes in with a voice of his own. Or a voice from Terrence Malick, which is, compared to the singular voices of most filmmakers, even better. Malick burst out onto the cinematic scene in 1973 with his lovely, impressionist take on the Bonnie and Clyde myth Badlands, a film that revealed that Bonnie and Clyde myth as just that: a myth. In his painterly, obviously artificial wide shots and deliberately stage-like acting, he interrogated the idea that, for all the pulsing liveliness and quasi-realism of the New Wave – of your Scorseses and the like – those films were, in their own day, odes to the myths of the American tradition to begin with. Sure, The Wild Bunch was a revisionist Western, a work of gritty “realism” contrasted with the gentle Westerns of old, but most people miss the subtle thread of non-realism and mythic homage to the idea of the Western in The Wild Bunch. Badlands was essentially, a film about how even the most realistic of New Hollywood films were themselves artificial products.
But it was more than that. It was a film about the power of those artificial products as artifice. It was a reminder that Bonnie and Clyde were not subjects we could ever know in reality. They were fundamentally tied into the whispers of history and the passing rumors and campfire stories of everyday people who hated them, were scared of them, and maybe, just maybe, loved them in some small place in their heart. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints isn’t quite as anti-naturalist as Badlands was, but Bradford Young’s gushingly impressionistic cinematography evokes Malick in his younger days, casting a mythic pall over the story of lovers at odds with American society. It is cinematography that flees from Bob and Ruth, that sings to them, and that feeds them a eulogy. It reminds us that for all their anti-social recklessness and youthful rage, they are as much part of the American tradition as any stodgy old crust politician or businessman.
Thus, when the films reminds of the homeliness of these two figures, it is reminding us that we already know them. They are American icons, as central to any history book tale as the Civil War or the New Deal. They are the epitome of human fire raging against the light of a downtrodden, localized Americana, the sort of wide but intimate expanse that feels both foreign and personal to anyone who has driven through the more rural parts of America and felt a distant but somehow tangible connection to the lore of a nation. A nation that is defined by a piecemeal patchwork of local tales that somehow manifest prismatically in slightly altered form to create a disparate, oblong quilt of communities we tell ourselves is a nation, even if they sometimes barely hang together by a thread. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a peek into this national lore to reveal our stories as just that: stories. But it also reveals that stories, in their ever-changing but still stagnant demeanor, can reveal some things more pressing than nominal facts can. They can both reflect and refocus a certain national pulse. They can reveal the aura of a place.
Lowery’s place is the mythic Americana so many movies have tangled with before. A mythic nature the film almost breaks the fourth wall to showcase; it is notable, for instance, that the movie doesn’t reveal its time period, but it instead takes place in a sort of contrasting collage of rural American ideological spaces, with markers of different times resting right on top of each other. The film never once seems like a lively, real place or story, but instead an almost theatrical, distanced one, which is why the seeming failure of the main story (Bob and Ruth never fully come alive as people) becomes a strength; the two main characters aren’t supposed to be real people, but mythic, iconographic “types” from America’s past.
And Lowery’s place is the location of American cinema in that American past, a humble reminder that we can never really talk about something like the refreshing modernity of Bonnie and Clyde without also discussing its equally revealing, important classical fabric. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints features a Daniel Hart score that recollects American folk music but forges those tunes into a tapestry so classical that it seems as much like alien wails as well-worn notes, and the film is likewise a study in how the American New Wave was not necessarily “original cinema” so much as an exciting, modern refashioning of stories so old they were ready to be fresh and alien again. The same is true with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as a whole; modern and “new” not because it is original, but because it is a necessary study in that which has for so long cast a pall over American cinema.