Ain't Them Bodies Saints ★★★★

This is easily the most beautiful film I’ve seen this past year, which should be a far more difficult thing to say than I feel it is -what, with 2013 being full of an insane amount of beauty in Prisoners, Upstream Color, Gravity and The Place Beyond the Pines (just to begin with).

DP Bradford Young's decision to shoot the film in 35mm instead of digitally seems obvious. Each frame feels like a carefully lit photograph, with rich texture and beautiful tonal ranges. The look he brings to the screen doesn't feel so much as it suits the film as it embodies it. The low-light (and entirely natural) settings demonstrate the true mastery that can be achieved in any medium, but epitomize the beauty of the analog process.

Daniel Hart’s score marries beautifully with the aesthetic David Lowery and Young have built visually, blending mood with tension and encapsulating the emotions as they come to boil. This is a film pivoting around central themes of what could have been and what should have been, and the choices made in framing its narrative in sound and vision the way that Lowery has are simply masterful.

But at its heart, and despite the few action sequences it has, this is a contemplative film, undulating as if floating down a river at its own speed. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play star-crossed lovers of their own making, and while their characters are interesting and their performances exactly what the roles demand, each has a singular purpose that doesn’t keep them compelling for the entire film. It's Ben Foster’s and Keith Carradine’s characters who I was most drawn to, each left dangling between the past and the future, but neither is ever fully dimensionalized.

Lowery demonstrates that he’s well on the way to being an incredible writer and director, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels like a proof of concept. It’s an ambling piece of cinema that’s a gentle farmer-chord ballad when it could have been a true tragedy. But I really look forward to the next film he creates, and hope that Bradford Young is behind the camera when he does.

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