10/40/70 - Ain't Them Bodies Saints
by Craigen Z Oster
In the book 10/40/70, author Nicholas Rombes recognizes the necessity of constraint as a means of liberating film criticism in the digital era. In this section of my reviews, I will be deploying the same techniques utilized by Rombes; analyzing the contents of the frames a film (released since the year 2000) contains at the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute marks.
These reviews will be posted every Wednesday.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013)
10 Minutes - Frame #1
David Lowery's second feature is packed full of love, loss, and longing in 1970s Texas throughout its incredibly brisk 95 minute runtime. It opens where most movies of this ilk would end; a big shoot out between the bank robbing trio of Bob Muldoon, his wife Ruth Guthrie, and Freddy and local law enforcement. The shootout leads to the death of Freddy, a parting between our two lovers, and our "hero" (if Casey Affleck's Bob can even be called that) being taken off to jail. Here, Bob has just been taken back to his cell after writing a letter, conveying in voiceover to his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) that this will be the first of many letters that will eventually lead to him delivering a final one to her, in person, and finally have the chance to embrace their newborn daughter. This film is beautifully shot, dripping in the light of golden Texas sunsets and glorious Malick-esque lens flares, so its striking that this frame at 10 minutes is so dark. Bob can barely be seen, his light, Ruth, his hope, their daughter, has been taken away from him due to his own sacrifice. During the robbery that led to a shootout with the police, Ruth was the one who in fact shot and wounded an officer, yet Bob took the fall and allowed Ruth to remain free. He willingly chose this darkness to save them from suffering.
The darkness shrouding Bob is ironic in contrast with the hopeful words of his letter to Ruth. He doesn't tell her that he hopes he is coming home, rather that he IS coming home. This image contradicts that tone. Is Bob doomed from the start? Will he ever be able to escape the darkness that he chose?
This image also contains a door. Doors and doorways have become a hallmark of Lowery's young career. Bob is framed here against his prison cell door, with the bars on the door in the upper right of the frame containing three distinct pieces of metal, connected by one crossing bar, creating an image that resembles three connected crosses. This potential for unity with his 3 person family (Bob, Ruth, and their child) remains behind him, literally. It is in his past. He has been thrust into the darkness.
40 Minutes - Frame #2
Bob has escaped prison and, just as he proclaimed to Ruth in his first letter, is back in town to re-unite his young family. Here, at the 40-minute mark, he has entered the store of Skerritt, the father of Freddy. Bob has come to have Skerritt let Ruth know that he is back, and that he's coming to take her and their daughter away so that they can live in freedom together.
But things aren't so simple. Skerritt has told Bob to give it up, and to leave Ruth and his daughter alone. Bob doesn't yet know that there are bounty hunters out to get him. But here, Bob is cast as the villain. While he is back in the light in this frame, he wears the black hat. The black hat is the classic marker in American Westerns of the enemy, of the one who whom the light must oppose. Despite Bob's attempts and desires to be in the life, he has chosen the path of the outlaw villain.
The look on Bob's face tells us that he won't stay away, that he can't. There is something within him, be it love or the commitment he made, that drive him to relentlessly pursue a return to take care of Ruth and their daughter.
Looking purely at the construction of the two images, Bob is essentially in the same place that he was before. Once again, the light is behind Bob in this frame. His eyes are peering towards darkness. He is now looking forward, rather than down as he was in the frame at 10 minutes, but the darkness persists. Rightfully or not, that is the role that society has now forever cast him in as well as the role that he himself chose to protect his family. He will forever wear the black hat, no matter how bad he wants to rid himself of it and how noble he attempts to me. Once an outlaw, always an outlaw.
70 Minutes - Frame #3
At this point in the film, Bob's idealized image of the return is shattered. Just before this image, as he is about to return, he gazes in the window and sees Officer Patrick Wheeler, the man whom Ruth shot (which Bob subsequently took the fall for), with Ruth and Bob's daughter on her birthday. The image presented here at 70 minutes is what the return for Bob looks like, his wife with someone new.
Here Ruth is in completely darkness and Patrick gazes back at her. Is she the darkness into which Bob has been staring, the darkness which draws him forward, both into and out of prison? Is her darkness now drawing in Patrick? This sounds like I'm discussing a horror film, but the darkness isn't some underlying evil. Ruth's darkness is the hidden truth that it was her who actually shot Patrick in the film's opening. She is not the innocent, unknowing tag-a-long that the rest of the town seems to think that she is. But Patrick knows this, he doesn't care, that is why he is able to gaze into her.
Patrick plays with a wooden toy home. It is just before this that Ruth asks him why he came tonight, that is, why did he come to be there for her daughter, why was he showing such love and affection? The answer is in his hands. Home. He wants to be her home, the home that Bob can no longer be for her, the home that her daughter so desperately needs given the circumstances of her birth. He has been toying with the idea throughout the film, with encounters between him and Ruth at church, about town, his eyes always on her and hers on him. He no longer wants to toy around with the idea. He wants it to be a reality.
Ruth is a woman caught in between the life her heart desires with Bob and the one she knows can truly provide for her; the life with the man who is there in the image along with her.
It is quite fitting that this final image among the collection of the three casts Bob out of it. He was all there was in the previous two. So often, men are the central focus in film, especially in Westerns, noirs, and crime films, three genres from which ATBS's is pulling heavily from. Those three genres, above all others, generally center around a man and his duty. But this film is not one of a man and his duty; it is a woman and hers. Ruth has a duty to care for her daughter, in any way that she can, even if that means giving up the man she loves and the family that could have been. Bob is no longer necessary for this story to continue. While a man, Patrick, still exists within the frame, he is no longer the focus. It is Ruth, in a striking silhouette, which draws in both his gaze and that of the viewer. She will persist, if only so that her daughter may as well.