Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Quiet, powerful, and evocative David Lowery’s new film "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints" is close to a masterpiece. Initially conceived as an action film about a prison break, Lowery soon became entranced with the "spaces in between" the action. He found himself drawn to the aftermath of the break and the repercussions it engendered. So instead, Lowery created a hushed and tender portrait of three people trying to do the right thing amidst a number of bad decisions.
The story takes place in Texas in the early ’70s. It opens with Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) urgently trying to escape her relationship with boyfriend Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck). He eventually convinces her that he is, indeed, in love with her and that she should stay with him.
With nowhere else to go, Ruth reluctantly (at first) submits to Bob’s promises and the two resume their tumultuous relationship. While their connection is strong and there is a clear sweetness to their affection, Bob’s criminal activity threatens to undermine it. But the fact that Ruth has just found out she’s pregnant causes Bob to rethink his future.
But first, Bob has a job to do and that involves armed robbery. Or something. We’re never quite sure, but what we do know is that things have gone badly when we jump ahead to a "Bonnie & Clyde" style shoot-out that leaves Casey’s partner dead and Ruth having shot the local Sheriff (Ben Foster). Even though Sheriff Wheeler is ultimately okay, the law is the law and jail time should be in her future.
But Bob’s love for Ruth makes him take the fall for her and he is sentenced to five years in prison. Ruth promises to wait for him, and as a result she spends five years working at a local shop for their longtime friend Skerritt (Keith Carradine) and raising their daughter Sylvie (Kennaide and Jacklynn Smith).
Things remain even-keeled until right before Bob’s release date, when he and his fellow inmates foolishly decide to escape prison. This sets off a statewide manhunt and puts Ruth in the spotlight. Fearful and angry, she decides to pack up and leave for a better life with her daughter. But the deep love she has for Bob overpowers her instinct to go and she decides to wait and see if he comes to find her. During this time, she is befriended by the timid and shy Sheriff Wheeler, who is clearly interested in Ruth but refuses to betray his friendship with her.
But this isn’t a story about an ill-fated love triangle. This is a story about three decent people just trying to deal with the consequences of their actions. It’s like an old folk song that has come to life in all its tragic beauty.
And beautiful it is. The cinematography by Joe Anderson is stunning: From crisp wide shots to gorgeously framed and lit intimate moments, this is one of the best looking pictures to come out in years. Add to that a haunting score by Daniel Hart, and you have a film where the talent behind the camera simply elevates every scene to absolute splendor. While the entire film is pregnant with internalized drama, it has a modest appearance that you can’t take your eyes away from.
Affleck keeps proving he is a master at playing messed up guys that are either good at heart or have reasons for why they aren’t. Here he gives Bob both danger and empathy, making him complex and not simply a jerk who thinks he’s untouchable. He may be a bit cocky and arrogant, but his tender heart is what’s leading the way.
Mara is exquisite, even though the sight of her playing another tragic moody character is getting a bit redundant ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "Side Effects"). With very little dialogue, she expresses so much through her eyes alone she could have said almost nothing and the audience would still know exactly what she was feeling. Because of this, we don’t get upset at her for staying to see if Bob shows up. She makes us understand why she does it and we don’t blame her.
At first, Foster seems like he’s going to play the usual authoritative jerk with a southern drawl that seems to be his go-to role, but instead he becomes the film’s most sympathetic and impressive character. His interest in Ruth is unconditional, and the way he finally expresses that to her is heart breaking. His character and performance was a total surprise and knocked the film out of the park.
Lowrey is a master with his actors, and he has crafted a gorgeously tragic tale of good people making bad choices. The pace of the film might make audiences impatient, but fans of directors like Terence Malick or films like "The Assassination of Jesse James" will find much to love. This is a timeless tale that doesn’t insist it has places to go. It simply shows you the path and lets you amble along until its tragically bittersweet end.