Portland’s resident filmmaking genius, Gus Van Sant, can go either way. Sometimes he’s mainstream (lest we forget Good Will Hunting) and sometimes he’s experimental (in the remarkable Elephant and Gerry). For his latest film, he wears both hats.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to fellow Portland legend John Callahan. You may remember Callahan: the carrot-haired quadriplegic cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings repeatedly crossed the borderline of good taste. The title refers to the caption of one of his most famous panels, a picture of some cowboys pondering an abandoned wheelchair in the middle of the desert. Before his death in 2010, Callahan worked with Van Sant on developing this biopic.
“I think these things matter.”—David Patrick Lowery, Some Analog Lines, 2006
The first thing that strikes you is the frame.
The classic 4:3 ratio, but with rounded corners, looking for all the world like shape of the old family-vacation slide shows of two generations ago.
In fact, we’ve seen this before. Movies sometimes start with that slide-show effect to evoke a series of memory captures, perhaps filling us in on a past that will become important to us when the movie slips into a more conventional, more contemporary frame to give us the film-proper.
But this is no prologue. This is the film, and the frame ration stays for the full running time, rounded corners and all.
The last film I remember that immediately confronted me with an unexpected frame and then defiantly kept to it—celebrated it—for its entire running time was Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s overhaul of the western, with which David Lowery’s A Ghost Storyshares a relentless sense of being lost rather than destined.
A Ghost Story is, among other things, a meditation on the frame and its possibilities. The frame is an apt metaphor for the condition of Lowery’s ghost, stuck in space but free in time, like, perhaps, a note painted into a crack in the grain of a wooden wall-frame, or a message hidden under a rock to be discovered—or not—by some yet unimagined other.
The Price of Salt is a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith (using the pseudonym Claire Morgan) about a lesbian romance. It sold a lot of copies in an underground way, and must’ve had great subversive punch as both a tale about “a love that dare not speak its name” and one in which the gay protagonists were not subjected to either a straightening “cure” or guilt-ridden suicide. In 2015, that layer of illicit discovery is impossible for Todd Haynes’ movie adaptation to resurrect. The Portland-based director instead presents a period piece that presents its passions in impeccably designed scenes that contain remarkably few surprises.
The romance simmers between Therese (Rooney Mara), a department-store salesgirl with vague notions of becoming a photographer, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an elegant lady currently divorcing her respectable husband (Kyle Chandler).
Set somewhere between the Great Depression and seventies recession in rural Texas, where time hasn’t stopped so much as rusted to a crawl, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints plays like the cinematic answer to an outlaw folk song.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play lovers Ruth and Bob, young adults who grew up fast under the watch of a dubious father figure (Keith Carradine) and ended up as small-time hold-up cowboys with a pick-up in place of a horse. Their world is sketched in with impressionistic snapshots, a mix of romantic hope and a doomed trajectory that ends in a shoot-out in an abandoned shack that looks like it’s been standing since the end of the old west, a prison term for Bob, and Ruth raising their daughter as a single mother, looked after by Skerrit (the shady but paternal retired outlaw played by Carradine) and looked in on by the lovesick policeman (Ben Foster) wounded in the shoot-out. He may or may not know the truth about who really pulled the trigger but he nonetheless still moons over Ruth and dotes on her daughter. It’s a delicate equilibrium that threatens to teeter over when Bob escapes lockup, sneaking back into home territory but staying on the outskirts. Because if there’s one thing law enforcement knows, it’s that Ruth means more to him than life itself. He’s written her every day he’s been in prison.
Ruth and Bob are no Bonnie and Clyde–they aren’t ruthless criminals as much as kids born to the outlaw way of life in a culture without many alternatives–and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints isn’t about heists and crime sprees. It’s a character piece about the foolish things people do for love, directed from a script that plays as if all the exposition has been edited out.
There are many things to admire about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, from its controlled mood to its fine cast to its folkie-fiddle musical score. A great deal of care, and a lot of affection for movie history, went into this low-key Sundance success. So why am I unconvinced? Maybe everything’s just a little too right, a little too calculated in writer-director David Lowery’s neo-Western-noir. This movie always knows exactly what it’s doing, and that gets a little suffocating.
The ingenious opening reels introduce us to a desperate couple, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck). Their criminal history is mostly left offscreen, but we witness a showdown with Texas cops that results in Bob taking the blame for a shot fired by the pregnant Ruth. Bob is hustled off to the pokey and four years pass, but the bullet remains lodged in the storyline: Small-town policeman Patrick (Ben Foster), the very officer wounded by Ruth’s gun, is now hanging around her and the baby.
David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints plays like the cinematic answer to an outlaw folk song. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play lovers Ruth and Bob, separated when Affleck heads to prison and Mara settles down to raise their daughter, looked after by Affleck’s shady but loyal father figure (Keith Carradine) and looked in on by lovesick policeman Ben Foster. Comparisons to Terrence Malick are not misplaced, but this has more in common with Thieves Like Us than Badlands, with Affleck as both a wild kid and cold killer and Mara as devoted mother and lover balancing her heart’s desire with her realist’s understanding of how his desperate prison escape is destined to end.
This is Lowery’s second feature, but his first film, St. Nick, remains undistributed and to date has only been seen in festivals (Robert C. Cumbow reviewed the film for Parallax View in 2009). Ain’t Them Bodies Saints may change that. It opened in New York and Los Angeles on August 16 and opens in Seattle (and becomes available on cable On Demand) on Friday, August 23.
I spoke with David Lowery when he came to the Seattle International Film Festival in May 2013.
How did you land such a great cast for your second feature?
They all really liked the script, and that was great. One of the things that helped was that I made this short film called Pioneer that played at Sundance in 2011 and when we sent the script out, I sent that short film with it. Pioneer is fifteen minutes long and is just a father telling his son a bedtime story. I wrote it while I was writing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and even though it’s a very different film, it speaks to some of the same ideas and same themes. Because it is just two actors, one of whom is four years old, talking for 15 minutes, and the film works—I don’t want to speak to highly of my own work but it was successful in what we tried to do—I think that gives the actors confidence in signing on to this film. They had the script, and that gave them an idea of what I wanted, and then they would see that short film and I think that helped a great deal in them saying, Yeah, we’ll take a chance on this guy. Because my previous feature, St. Nick, was so tiny it’s hard to gauge from that film how this one would be, but that short film I think was very instrumental. All the actors in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints were all my first choices for the part and through some miracle all were available and all wanted to do it and it came together in a rather miraculous fashion.
While watching Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I thought about Thieves Like Us and They Live By Night, both films that are built on the idea that these young outlaws were born into this world and living in a perpetual depression.
I’m really glad you brought up They Live By Night because that’s one that I watched for the first time while I was at the end of the screenwriting process. The script was done and I don’t know if it was after we cast it, but I watched it and something I love about that movie is the way the last act, or almost the last act—the act breaks are weird in that movie—but it turns into this extended chase sequence that starts off feeling like it’s going to be just a small aside, it’s not going to be the climax of the movie, and it turns into this great mountainside chase sequence and it’s really intense and that becomes a huge part of the movie. And then you’ve got the thing with the Ma, which is extended as well, but that was something I thought about a lot in terms of how our movie finally moves towards what might be considered the one action scene and then takes on unexpectedly epic proportions, to some extent, at least.
And I really enjoyed how we learned more about the characters through the course of the film. You don’t make a point of making them mysterious, you simply throw us into the middle of their lives without an introduction and we get references to this and that and fill out this sense of their lived histories.
I love the idea of characters with history and I love the idea that people live in a world where everyone just understands what’s happened and they don’t need to talk about it. So if you drop into the middle of it, you might pick up a reference here and a reference there to something that’s happened and gradually you put together a patchwork understanding of who someone is and where they’re coming from, but no one ever sits down and just talks about, you know, does the whole David Copperfield thing: “I was born…” No one every pauses to do that so you just piecemeal it together. And as an audience member I love that. I love getting these cyphers, so to speak, and gradually through decoupage figuring out who they are as human beings and what their history is. And that’s a fun way for me to write characters. I always fall back on this description of it: I start off with an archetype and just gradually figure out what it is that makes them a full-fledged human being. I think with this movie, you start off throwing these people up there in archetypal relief in the beginning of the film and gradually, with the information you get, it chips away at the edifice of the archetypes. A little snippet of information here, another one there, and gradually you realize that they’re actually people and not these grand, mythic figures that Casey [Affleck’s character], at least, thinks he is.