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By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

They live and die by night: David Lowery’s second feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is all sweet flash and filigree in a muted Texas outlaw couple fable-cum-triangle, envisioned in crepuscular beauty. A dim juke, a dark barn, an unlit road: It’s nighttime in this part of Texas. Some Sundance viewers found ready comparisons to Terrence Malick’s early films, but more than Malick, Saints seethes with the sparse parsing of Cormac McCarthy, the fated trajectory of trudge in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the intimately tactile character of Claire Denis’ many movies. Still, a reference to “A train up near Bartlesville” is a sly nod to the Man With The Beard (and a minor role is filled by an actor named Rami Malek).

The main title is calligraphed as if in walnut ink on faded parchment, but this is the not the time of pioneers, but the 1970s, indeterminate, a time of boxy, elongated vehicles. In the town of Meridian, Texas in hill country, Saints’ romantic triangle between outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), his wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), and local sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) is also a fugue for a bastard who’s tangled up the lives of others. Backstory is minimal. Moments, gestures tell all. Affleck’s self-regarding man who would be a small god has some of the jumbled confidence of a Nick Ray antihero, confident but callow, and there are scenes that hint at a lost-childhood scene in Ray’s Lusty Men that Wim Wenders has also nodded toward. (An abandoned house as hideout; a child’s toy horse as spent currency.)

The actors are splendid, including Keith Carradine (from Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, itself a remake of Ray’s They Live By Night). Muted calm suffuses each injured gesture. Ben Foster’s attentive sheriff is calm but hardly restive: mustachioed, quietly bustling inside, his eyes fixed on Ruth. In one of many exquisite, near-perfect images, Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot the luminous, silken Pariah) shoot Ruth sitting on a porch, finding a pluperfect moment of light to capture Mara’s liquid brown eyes and dimples and fantastically manicured eyebrows: she seems lit from within, electric with caution, presenting a precise face to her world.

Lowery’s Texas, simmering, shimmering, altogether gorgeous, is a place of extraordinary ordinariness and the simplest details sing: Ruth’s simple white dress in an early scene, lightly cinched with thin rope, barelegged in boots with the tongues nearly loose; a second-story view of a street corner at dawn, similar to a quietly haunting shot in Badlands; a sandwich in wax paper folded just so, fingers tickling the dark under a bar counter, finding, of course, a sawed-off double barrel; shadows as deep as daylight is bright, the warmth of particular shadows that fall to black just past faces. What scenes are not shot at golden hour are shot, boldly, in the hours just beyond. It’s the same commonplace rustication as in his rich, minimal first feature, St. Nick, the story of two children on the run. Spaces and places feel as warmly worn and lived-in as an old man’s boots.

There’s a swarming, enveloping score by Chris Heath and others: sonically, its bountiful sorrow weighs a passel of portent. And what sound design: The thrumming communal rasp of crickets, a kitten’s blurt of miao; the pop-pop of the worn needle in the last grooves of a record on an old jukebox.

The characters sometimes sound like their words have been running in their heads for months and years, like the brittle pages of a scrapbook that’s been a hot attic for so many summers and flipped into crumbs. Muldoon’s affectations include “I came across the woods and mountains with no shoes on”; ” I hear people talking about regret but I don’t have any”; “How do I look?” “You look like you.” “That’ll do.” And Rooney murmurously bites off her share of lines like “Ah kin handle some kittens at least.”

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an exquisitely tinged fable for a nation of arthouses that hardly still stand. “Where you headed?” a man asks Muldoon and he answers, “That direction hadn’t been invented yet.” Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is rich with reinvention: that’s more than a beginning.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas