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We Do What We Can to Endure: On Memory and Time in David Lowery’s Films

Have you ever noticed there’s no telling when David Lowery’s movies take place?

Sure, there’s the occasional hint: a sleek Texas cityscape, a date on a newspaper. But they’re very rarely front and center. And a near-total absence of technology in his stories only goes so far to imply whether they’re set in the 1970s or the 2010s when you consider Lowery’s settings of choice—regions of life which have endured sans the intrusive impact of screens, where time is as malleable as its impact is all-encompassing.

These aren’t mistakes or coincidences, but rather signs of the nostalgic lens through which the Wisconsin-born director imagined his quartet of 2010s features, and also his first of the new decade. These movies—“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “A Ghost Story,” “The Old Man & the Gun” and “The Green Knight”—are simultaneously intimate and infinite, indicative of how mischievous a force time is in them, and of how Lowery’s dreamlike style folds characters’ memories into what feels like our own.

Those five films may seem to have little in common, but they’re united by subtle tensions which sprout between the past and present lives of their characters. In “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” memory turns love embraced into love surrendered; in “Pete’s Dragon,” it turns primal connection into a found family; in “A Ghost Story,” it’s the difference between legacy and temporality; in “The Old Man & the Gun,” it defines an existential clash between youthfulness and age; and in “The Green Knight,” the astounding culmination of Lowery’s curiosities, it shapes a quest for greatness into one of self-reckoning.  

Lowery emphasizes attachment to the past, imbuing archetypes with newfound emotional fullness, whether it’s catharsis or devastation.

Consider the years-spanning odyssey of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” in which Lowery depicts love’s evolution in absence over time. The movie practically begins with its climax, amid the gunfire of a robbery attempt gone wrong, which will tear apart young lovers Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) after the former takes the blame for a lawman getting shot. Lowery has already established an anchor point for his characters’ nostalgia—and, by proxy, ours—after showing them in loving embrace just before their crime. By overlapping the movie’s scenes, he establishes what feels like the origins of an American myth, with Bob’s eventual escape the kind of exploit that would be sung about around a campfire.

While physical distance between Bob and Ruth gives “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” its thrust, the passage of time in the story is what gives it emotional gravitas. Bob has used the nostalgia of sweeter times and the memory of commitment to propel him to Ruth despite his doing so making the situation worse. Because the movie opens at a brighter spot in their relationship, we find ourselves invested in his journey. On the flip side, time has taught Ruth a different truth: The tug of the past can only do so much in the present, and in her present is a child whose wellbeing she now has to consider. The revelation pushes her towards Ben Foster’s well-meaning cop, someone she never would have been with otherwise.

Meanwhile, Bob and Ruth continue to be outwardly associated with the shootout all those months ago; the memory has remained potent in this small Texas community, exacerbating the archetype of Bob as the kind of outlaw around which myths are centered. But as “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” winds down, he catches a ride with a stranger who doesn’t recognize him—practically the first character who sees him as anonymous, just another wild spirit in a wild land. That moment plays like a rebuke to how we’ve perceived him up to that point, and perhaps how he’s perceived himself; his reaction is one of pain rather than relief. The myth might be all in our mind, in other words, a testament to Lowery’s ability to influence it. The memory of past passion rings true nonetheless in the final moments, as Bob prepares to die in Ruth’s embrace—a mirroring of a repeated image from years prior when she held him while glancing forward to brighter futures that weren’t to be. Time had other plans, as it so often does.

If we thought “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” strolls along a fairly straightforward narrative path, “Pete’s Dragon” would prove three years later that Lowery’s gait can be increasingly confident depending on his story. Tuning his storytelling frequencies for younger audiences without restraining the sincerity that coursed through “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” his most explicit fairy tale derives from a great and grounded tradition of human-animal companionship.

In Lowery’s movie, companionship is rooted in trauma. The worst kind of memory takes hold at the start, when young Pete emerges from the wreckage which killed his parents. Aimless and alone, he’s eventually discovered and adopted by the benevolent beast whom time will turn into the only family Pete knows. In “Pete’s Dragon,” time doesn’t heal the horror of Pete’s past so much as it increasingly and intrinsically links his love for Elliott to it. When they’re separated, the movie has its dramatic thrust as memory rears its head; the young boy’s drive to reunite with Elliott and, later, to liberate themselves is rooted in the poignancy of having found each other all those years ago, and on what they’ve come to represent for each other through all that time. Consequently, Lowery conducts the movie’s emotions so that our hearts soar and fall based on the notes of the first images we see—of tragedy and connection—and everything we feel hinges on the outcome of his protagonist’s ultimate escape.

In 2017, Lowery rode his guiding principles of timelessness and nostalgia to beguiling extremes in “A Ghost Story.” Eschewing character-focused storytelling for metaphysical curiosity while encapsulating the director’s fascination with how our histories influence our present and future, the movie is at once the closest thing to an outlier in his filmography and also a thesis for it. It’s Lowery at his most daring and his most anxious, a film that sees him wondering: What if the experiences for which we’re nostalgic aren’t enough to prepare us for what’s to come?

In “A Ghost Story,” that question turns a musician and his wife’s romance, interrupted by the former’s sudden death, into a haunted setting. And traps us in it. The borders of the boxy aspect ratio resemble a Polaroid, in which constantly shifting memories swim around. Drifting through it is the tall, silent, and sheet-draped figure who can’t leave the place where his memories live. But nostalgia can’t stop time from doing what it will to the home after Rooney Mara’s grieving widow decides to leave it.

Lowery makes an explicit statement about time’s ceaselessness with that famous, nearly-five-minute unbroken shot of Mara’s M devouring a pie while the ghostly figure looks on. The impact of unshakeable memory pulses throughout, its presence increasingly undeniable despite each second ostensibly placing more distance between her and her partner’s death. Could grief be strong enough to pull us in two directions at once? The scene suggests the passage of time might instead drive deeper the things we’d rather forget about; it’s strong enough, we find, to make a song sound melancholic for entirely different reasons. She is eventually able to leave and move on, though the ghostly presence remains, haunted by memory while haunting the house’s next denizens.

At the same time, the editing of “A Ghost Story” (here done by Lowery himself) turns time into an increasingly slippery slope. Days, weeks, months and sometimes even decades vanish in a single cut with little warning, catching the ghost off-guard as he remains locked in on the past. The ghost's desperation bears fruit once he’s endured enough time (and enough of time) for the past to become literally present again. “We do what we can to endure,” a partygoer at the home says—it’s Lowery’s ethos verbalized. If the director is disquieted by the idea that the memory of someone is a flame that’ll eventually die out, the end of “A Ghost Story” suggests the smallest of artifacts —like a note hidden within a wall—may contain enough nostalgia within them to keep the embers glowing.

Lowery followed up his most pensive work with his most playful, building on the audience’s own expectations born from the nostalgia of Hollywood via Robert Redford’s return in “The Old Man & the Gun.” His character, the devilishly smooth-talking bank robber Forrest Tucker, is a man conveniently ignoring how much time he doesn’t have left, delaying his expiration date by tapping into reservoirs of youthful lawlessness that seem to only get refilled again and again with every jail escape, every casual crime.

In the same vein, “The Old Man & the Gun” sees Lowery extending his hand and allowing Redford to extend his own life as an actor—still as handsome and charming as ever, the decades seem to collapse in on themselves when we watch Forrest circumvent the law with the same casual ease as he woos Sissy Spacek’s love interest. Redford renders the passing of real-world time as meaningless, and it’s as glorious to witness as it is seeing Forrest stick up another bank.

It’s a funny twist of the cinematic fates that Affleck returns here, only this time on the other side of the law after playing the outlaw Bob in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” In “The Old Man & the Gun,” Affleck’s dedicated local police officer, John Hunt, represents the decorum Forrest gets a kick out of circumventing time and time again, armed by the memories of his experience which Hunt can’t quite seem to measure up to. Surely, policing technology and tactics have come some way since Forrest first dipped his feet into crime, but in this instance, time’s passage has only fortified his relaxed mastery and resolve.

Even in light of the movie’s relative lack of bloodshed, it would be inaccurate to say it’s without stakes. No, they’re not life or death implications, but rather the things we associate with being in the present moment or being lost to the past. A fear of irrelevance may be what’s driving Forrest to continue testing the limits of this freedom, though he’d never admit it. For him, and for us watching him, time’s passing is something to be defied by the power of memory. Forrest is an adequate mascot for Lowery’s filmography. 

In Lowery’s newest and most unflinching work, “The Green Knight,” time is turned completely on its head. Unlike the filmmaker’s prior protagonists, it isn’t the young Gawain’s past as he experienced it that makes the lad eager for a chance to accomplish something honorable. It’s the past as he was told about it; stories burnished with nostalgia about the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, stories about triumphs, grace, and grit that we can easily imagine Dev Patel’s Gawain grew up with because we did, too. The awe is palpable in his eyes and voice: “I see legends.” We expect the next two hours to show us how he becomes one. 

But stories, and our memories of legends, have a way of sweetening themselves, suiting up in the durable wonder of hyperbole over the years like a knight slipping on his chain mail. Gawain finds as much out for himself when he sets upon his journey to the Green Chapel ... a quest that finds him humbled by a reality the storytellers must have neglected to mention. He’s sent off not with a parade, but by a herd of sheep. His foes aren’t fire-breathing dragons but the biting cold of the winter wind. He’s done in rather easily by a group of ragamuffin bandits before being besieged by visions of his mortality. 

Most importantly, Gawain isn’t the gallant figure he thinks himself to be (until the final moments, that is), though he clings to the stories passed down through time as if that were enough to make him one. And Patel—whom Lowery enlists at the sweet spot in his career when boyishness bristles timidly against bravery—sells the would-be knight’s delusion splendidly, holding his head high on the lonely, quiet road while still betraying a glint of “Is this all there is?” in his eyes. Greatness is a construct of time and the memories Gawain wishes he could make his own in “The Green Knight,” and the pursuit of it is but a game. The absence of grandeur turns him into a smaller and smaller figure until he’s finally inside his own mind and self-doubt, bringing us along with him—literally so, in the flashforward sequence of the final minutes. 

Throughout all of “The Green Knight,” Lowery peppers the strange scenes and dreamlike settings of the journey with sly hints that Gawain isn’t merely traveling through the present land but also his future kingdom, one charred and torn apart by death. He is so consumed by the allure of legacy that it seems to bend time itself around him.

The past has a way of remaining present in Lowery’s imagination. It’s ironic, then, to consider how that’s helped cement him as one of the most vital storytellers of current cinema. Lowery's films turn a mirror back on the nostalgia embodied in such sights as a lover on the run in the melancholy West, a massive dragon evading capture, a sheet-covered spirit waiting in purgatory, a criminal trying to find escape into obscurity, and a lone knight who wishes for greatness. These motifs carry with them a weight of myth worth only as much as our willingness to interrogate them, to shape them into new ideas befitting the changes brought about by time. No, there may be no definitive telling of when Lowery’s movies are set. They’re always rooted in the ever-fluid now.

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