Sometimes a small movie like “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” sneaks unheralded into town and quietly goes away after a week or two. Usually, in fact. Maybe not in this case, though.
In the world of small, independent movies, its writer-director, David Lowery, is an up-and-comer.
Lowery, known early on as primarily an editor on films like “Sun Don't Shine,” “Bad Fever” and “Upstream Color,” now is quickly making a name for himself as a writer-director. He's often being compared to Terrence Malick.
His first feature-length movie, “St. Nick,” shot with nonprofessional child actors on a budget of $12,000, played at the SXSW festival in Austin in 2009.
But it was a 2011 short film, “Pioneer,” that got Lowery on an accelerated career track as a writer-director, plucked from the film-festival circuit. Producer Jay Van Hoy was a member of the SXSW jury that year. The two crossed paths again at the Sundance Screenwriting Labs, where Lowery brought the script for his second feature.
Van Hoy and his producing partner, Lars Knudson, can elevate a microbudget project to something more, as Omaha director Nik Fackler learned in 2007 with “Lovely, Still.”
Almost before Lowery knew it, “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” had a budget of $4 million and a cast that included Oscar nominees Casey Affleck (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) and Rooney Mara (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”), plus Ben Foster (“The Messenger”) and Keith Carradine.
“Ain't Them Bodies Saints” opens Friday at Film Streams. It's the story of Ruth, a west Texas mother (Mara) whose husband, Bob (Affleck), is imprisoned after a crime spree she took part in. In fact, she wounded a deputy just before they were captured, and Bob took the blame.
A few years later, around 1970, Bob escapes and has only one thought: to be united with Ruth and their daughter, who was born while he was in prison. But that deputy (Foster) is hovering around Ruth, and it's unclear whether he's romantically inclined or just hoping to capture Bob.
Carradine plays the small-town kingpin who was a foster dad to Ruth and Bob. He's trying to protect Ruth and the little girl from all the ruthless enemies Bob made in his years of crime. You get the sense that as a mom, Ruth has grown up. Bob, maybe not so much.
Lowery set out to write a chase movie, a crime thriller about a guy breaking out of jail.
“But I found myself more interested in the aftermath, the repercussions, the spaces in between,” he says in the film's press packet. “The dueling notions of romance and responsibility became an important part of the story.”
He never finished the action-movie script, a bleak version in which everyone dies in the end. His third major draft of the screenplay is the one he shot. He said Affleck, Mara and Foster were his dream first choices for the cast.
“Casey is not a traditional leading man, but he has an electrifying presence onscreen and fits the character so well. And I love his voice. Rooney doesn't look like a movie star playing a small-town mom. She has such different looks in every film she's in. I was confident she could vanish into that character. And Ben, when I sat down with him, it was the kindness he radiated. He's intense but so gentlemanly and considerate and caring. I became fixed on the idea of him playing the nice guy in this movie.”
It's the minimalist dialogue, the mood-drenched sense of place and beautifully lit cinematography — with many shots at sunrise and sunset — that are drawing comparisons to Malick. When I asked Lowery, speaking by phone from his home in Dallas, how he worked at evoking so many unspoken feelings and the moody ambience of rural west Texas where he grew up, his answer was deceptively simple.
“For me, it's a matter of creating strong characters and events, and letting the camera roll a bit longer than you normally would. You know the emotions they're feeling are very big. You know why the tension is there. So you just let those big ideas hang over the movie, let the silent moments take on the weight of all those feelings.”
An original soundtrack by Daniel Hart is also key. Lowery calls it the movie's “central nervous system.”
What about Lowery's central nervous system? He's come so far so fast. Have the hoopla of Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals made it hard to keep his feet on the ground?
“It is overwhelming,” he admitted. “A big part of it is Dallas. This is my place to get work done, relax and be away from all that. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Once I get my head clear, I get back to where I always am. The goal is always the same, to make movies I'm proud of. Doing things with integrity.”
He's got a couple of projects in the works, including one about an old bank robber that Robert Redford is interested in and another he's writing with Affleck in mind.
“This is what I love doing, so I can handle sitting on the couch and writing all day long for a few months,” Lowery said.