Directed by: David Lowery.
Written by: David Lowery.
Starring: Rooney Mara (Ruth Guthrie), Casey Affleck (Bob Muldoon), Ben Foster (Patrick Wheeler), Keith Carradine (Skerritt), Kennadie Smith (Sylvie Guthrie), Jacklynn Smith (Sylvie Guthrie), Nate Parker (Sweetie), Robert Longstreet (Cowboy Hat), Charles Baker (Bear), Augustine Frizzell (Sissy), Kentucker Audley (Freddy), David Zellner (Zellner), Turner Ross (T.C.), Rami Malek (Will).
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints begins where most movies of its ilk end. The film has been compared to Terrence Malick’s Badlands – with good reason – but that film concentrated on its young lovers on the run from the law. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has barely begun when the robbery committed the young lovers at its core, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck), and their cohort, has gone awry and ends in a shootout with the police. Ruth ends up shooting one of the cops, but because she has told Bob she is pregnant, and he is head over heels in love with her, he tells her to blame the whole thing on him. It works – he’s hauled off to jail, and the sends love letters to her, telling her that he will come to her and their daughter, and she has raise their child on their own. This is where most movies would end – but the majority of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints takes place a few years later – when Bob has broken out of jail, and is slowly making his way back home. The two lovers spend most of the movie apart – although we still feel their connection.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is more about mood than about plot – the movie would perhaps be even better had it jettisoned even more of its plot than it already has. The film has a dreamy romantic feel to it – especially when the film is concentrated on Bob – he has a one track mind to get home to Ruth and his daughter, and his letters (spoken in Malick-like voiceover) express an almost delusional level of romantic love towards his family. In some ways, he’s more akin to the Sissy Spacek character in Badlands – she narrated that movie, and one of the more striking things about Badlands is the difference between how she describes what is happening, and what we actually see (she glosses over just how violent things become). In many ways, Bob is like that as well – despite the fact he is now an escaped convict, hunted by police over all Texas, not to mention three paid assassins out to get his money and/or kill him, he still recklessly heads towards Ruth with determination. He’s not so bold as to go straight to her house – but he does have a plan that struck me as something a lovesick teenager would come up with – because in many ways, that’s just what he is.
Mara’s Ruth has been forced to live in the real world since Bob went to jail. She has to work to support their daughter, and even that wouldn’t be enough to keep them afloat if Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the father of their killed accomplice, didn’t supply them with a house to live in. While Bob has only gotten through prison by thinking about Ruth, she has not had that option. In those short, early scenes, both Affleck and Mara appear to be wildly, passionately in love – and while that love never fades for Bob, the movie, Mara’s impressive performance, makes us question whether the same is true for her. Having a child has forced her to grow up – and Bob represents the kind of life she has left behind. Meanwhile, Patrick (Ben Foster), the cop who was shot, makes it clear that he also likes Ruth – and her daughter. He’s a responsible, down-to-earth, dependable man – and even if he suspects that Ruth may have been the one who actually shot him that somehow only strengthens the attraction. This is a remarkably subtle turn by Foster – an actor known for going over the top, and it’s the film’s best performance. It also adds a mounting dread to the movie – what is Bob going to do if he shows up, especially if Ruth decides she would prefer Patrick to him?
The film justly won the cinematography award at Sundance this year – much of the movie seems to set during the twilight hours, which is perfect for this movie, because it can make for dreamy, romantic moments, but also hints at the impending darkness in the story. Yes, it does feel like something Malick would have made in the 1970s – but Malick is not the film’s only inspiration. The early 1970s work of Robert Altman can also be glimpsed here – in particular Thieves Like Us (1974) – and not just for the presence of Keith Carradine (although his presence makes the connection impossible to ignore), and in its depiction of violence, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
It’s too bad that writer-director David Lowery included the three assassins in the movie at all – there presence of course brings on the climax of the movie, but they don’t really fit in with the rest of the film, and to me, robs the ending of the power it otherwise could have had.
But that’s a small complaint about an otherwise stellar movie – with four excellent performances, gorgeous cinematography and a romantic sensibility that we do not often see in movies anymore.