Although filmmaker David Lowery intended his sophomore feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to play to audiences like a Bob Dylan inspired folk song, in the end it was The Beach Boys rather than Dylan whose lyrics echoed strongest in my mind.
Yet far from their “Fun, Fun, Fun” era, the tune that resonated most for me was the Pet Sounds epic “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which, had it been left off that landmark album and penned directly for film would have made the perfect theme song for Bodies’ main character Bob Muldoon, as played by Casey Affleck.
A man out of time, regardless of what time he’s in, Bob Muldoon is one of a long-line of fictional dreamers – the kind descended from Heathcliff or Jay Gatsby whose doomed end you see coming a mile away but whose unflappable belief that he will earn his Happily Ever After remains both his ultimate hubris as well as his ultimate strength.
If he’d had more education or was more literate, Bob Muldoon may have been a writer churning out fiction that would fit somewhere in between Steinbeck and Dickens infused with a bit of the Beat Generation’s “go, go, go” lust for aimless adventure.
Dreaming his life away longing for things he’ll never achieve for more than a mere moment, Bob Muldoon understands he’ll never have the same opportunities that educated men have. As he is in love with ideas of what he should do, the kind of life he should lead and the woman he seems to be more in love with in theory than truly connected with, Bob Muldoon does the most with what he’s given until he gets it in his head that he deserves a bit more.
So he embarks on a Bonnie and Clyde-esque crime-spree with a buddy and his true love that culminates the way everyone (except Bob and those he’s seduced with his stories) know it will. For, that’s what stories do, don’t they? – offer the promise of a future that’s much greater than the one at present.
And unfortunately for Bob, his friend Fred and his girl Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), the story he dreamed up at the start does not have a happy ending – ending instead in a hail of gunfire that leaves his friend dead and a police officer wounded by a bullet fired at the hands of a pregnant Ruth.
But even in the darkest of moments, Bob Muldoon won’t allow himself to drop the thread of the tale he’s written for himself – ensuring the safety of Ruth and his unborn child by confessing to the shot he did not fire so that at least for now he remains in his eyes as well as Ruth’s the hero of the story.
Yet there’s something about Ruth that brings out the hero in everyone as once Bob finds himself behind bars, two more men pick up the torch – from the father (Keith Carradine) of their deceased friend to the police officer (Ben Foster) whose presence at the wrong place at the wrong time caused his fate to be forever intertwined with those that Bob left behind.
Feeling a kinship to Ruth and her daughter that he can’t deny, Foster’s good-hearted Patrick – much like Bob had done in the past – takes in upon himself to be her protector. Likewise, idealizing Ruth in the same way that Affleck’s convict continues to do in prison – neither man ever looks past their own narratives to understand that perhaps Ruth is the strongest of them all. And in fact, Ruth is quite capable of looking after herself and the child she’d had after Bob’s incarceration that is now a strong-willed variation of her parents at the tender age of four.
Similarly affected by her father’s sense of heroism, Ruth’s daughter Sylvie applies it to her own life, taking in not one but four stray kittens that – much like her – have lost a parent and fighting any boy who speaks ill of her family.
Although every character takes it upon themselves to serve somebody, nobody takes this belief more seriously than Bob, using his time in prison to put his dreams to paper, focusing all of his new stories on a happy reunion with those he loves at home in a series of letters he pens to Ruth.
Believing it to be his destiny to be with her once again, regardless of how many laws he has to break – Bob promises Ruth that the next letter he writes to her will be placed by him directly into her hands and attempts a sixth prison escape, which turns out to work like a charm.
Like an aftershock of an earthquake, the effects of Bob’s escape are felt by everyone but the man who’s put prison in his rearview, as we’ve been made painfully aware by Lowery just how much things at home have changed, which is in stark contrast to Bob’s belief that he can just show up and pick things up where they’d left off.
Unbeknownst to him, alliances have shifted, feelings have grown far more complex and there’s much at stake externally as well as internally and unfortunately, this is precisely where the film begins to lose its direction.
For what had begun so successfully as a Terrence Malick inspired adaptation of an Emily Bronte or Willa Cather novel channeled with post-Hemingway masculinity in the American west suddenly switches gears after Bob begins to venture home.
Tonally uneven, Bodies becomes an episodic crime saga that replaces romance with Cormac McCarthy-like Noir ideas of revenge that raise far too many unanswered questions when it cuts from Ruth’s storyline to follow Bob’s ever-changing journey of subplots.
And this startling change of pace is perhaps most evident in an otherwise powerfully acted scene in which Carradine has a major confrontation with Bob that feels like it’s come from a different movie altogether that’s been accidentally edited into the picture before it tries to bring us back to our regularly scheduled program.
While the introduction of thriller elements and some mysterious characters definitely liven up the admittedly slow-moving film, we aren’t provided with enough information to fully process the events that unfold onscreen.
Initially lost in the shuffle with regard to who some of the new individuals are and just what it is that they want – thanks to not just the ambiguities in the writing but the way the edited film deviates from one subplot to the next – Bodies stumbles a bit in its second half before drawing us back into the romantic spirit of the piece in its final moving act.
Augmented by the sheer beauty of the work thanks to the luscious Sundance award-winning cinematography by Bradford Young and the lyrical score by Daniel Hart that easily tugs on viewer heartstrings, Bodies may disappoint us by the fall it takes from the greatness experienced in the film’s opening but it’s spellbinding nonetheless.
Further proof of the brilliance of Ben Foster in taking what could’ve easily turned into a clichéd, one-dimensional role as the polar opposite of Bob and coloring it with such complexity that he nearly steals every scene he’s in from the two dynamic leads, Lowery’s Saints is a must-see for fans of the talented cast.
Gorgeously transferred to Blu-ray where it makes its home entertainment debut as a fully loaded disc – while it’s unfortunately missing a digital copy or filmmaker commentary, Bodies serves up some genuine surprises including Lowery’s first film St. Nick as well as a number of behind-the-scenes extras.
Overall an ambitious, if flawed, ode to the transformative power of dreams – and the American dream in particular – Bodies celebrates storytelling as if it were its own version of true love, which in Bob’s case, may very well be true as he blends together daydreamed stories of love and life that somehow envelope his own love and life in the process.
While we are never in doubt that this will end badly for Bob as a man who just wasn’t made for these times (and a character better served in fiction than in real life), the strength of Bodies is that we’re so enchanted by the promises of Bob’s stories that we’re taken in by it all the same.
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