Brief Thoughts on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints & Icons
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a loping film, thought it has less in common with a wolf than a coyote eyeing you warily from the side of the road. Malick has been invoked, because there is some splendor in the tall grass and a weighty sense of grace, either here and now or slipping away forever. But this is not Malick, not a lusting over land and bodies and the canonization of these flesh and rain objects. Lowery’s people, too, achieve a certain thingness, but by virtue of their existence as unrefined archetypes.
The film is as flawed as its characters, never breaking out or reaching the pitch that seems promised. It works best when it indulges its predilection for reifying photographed bodies into American icons stumbling through a permanently dusk-and-night bound South trying to make sense of the absurd. It feels like a Western in the shadow of Camus, not because it reaches such artistic heights, but because the joke is on the viewer who tries desperately to connecting these pictures to universal meanings. People do and do and, sometimes, they do evil, but that is often the least interesting thing about them. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is less about rugged lawmen and bank robbers clashing for the soul of the nation than it is about the way a bandit can rest a shotgun on his shoulder and look the spitting image of a slugger before he steps to the plate.
Icons work because they don’t really move. We may press play, but their motion is so restricted – their heroism and villainy, even their belief in such things – that from afar they look like statues. Imagine Babe Ruth, John Dillinger, JFK, Al Capone, Ali, Jordan. They are all frozen in an act. Lowery really sets them off to deal with their own being and we find that they’ve got nothing to do but posture. Icons are beautiful, but false reductions. The movie fails in exactly the way it had to. If the icon is made flesh, it bleeds.