Movie Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Most outlaw films and Westerns follow their culprits’ paths from motivation to criminal strategizing to execution, often ending in a hail of gunfire and a denouement of settled dust.
Dallas filmmaker David Lowery’s languid and engrossing “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” catches up with its troubled protagonists just before a violent act unravels the story.
Walking in a Texas countryside colored by honeyed magic-hour light, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) mumbles promises and plans to his beloved Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara). One more job and they’ll be done. He’s gonna make a home for them. Life is about to get better. She acts like she’s heard this all before.
Suspicious but intrigued, Ruth tells Bob that she’s pregnant. A split second of hesitation erupts in joy, and Bob’s persuading and Ruth’s reluctance melt into optimistic warmth. It won’t last.
The story jumps ahead to the end of that promised one last heist (what the exact crime is, we never quite understand), as Bob, Ruth and their accomplice engage in a brief shootout with sheriff’s deputies, led by Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). When their friend dies and Ruth shoots Wheeler in the shoulder, Bob decides it’s best to surrender and throws himself at the mercy of the law, taking the fall for his pregnant wife-to-be.
As the authorities drag Bob to the waiting car, the steely cuffed criminal bends to Ruth, their heads magnetically drawn together in a passionate gesture of desperation and love. Bob faces a long prison sentence, with Ruth left to raise their daughter, Sylvie, on her own.
Using the romantic device of hand-scrawled love letters as narration, we see a determined and mildly delusional Bob continue his promise to Ruth that he is going to take care of her. He’s preparing to break out of prison, and eventually his actions match his bold talk.
After escaping prison, Bob traverses the countryside back to Meridian, Texas, the once sun-dappled landscape of this timeless place now shadowy and portentous. Scenes of his plotting and scheming with the help of an old friend (Nate Parker) reinforce his unrelenting love for Ruth. But while Bob has dreamed of returning to his love, Ruth has dealt with the practical complexities of raising a daughter on her own. In a role with little dialogue, Mara is brilliant, her eyes carrying the weight of her sorrow and determination. A steel rod runs through her small frame that softens only to snuggle her daughter.
Complicating matters for Ruth is the puppy-dogged persistence of Wheeler. The deputy who was shot by Ruth has fallen under the spell of this stern but bruised woman. Though he likely knows that she was the one who shot him, Wheeler feels compelled to protect Ruth. But anytime he tries to get too close, Ruth radiates an iciness to keep her unlikely suitor at bay. Foster plays the unrequited with a deep and subtle anxiety and sadness, proving once again that he is one of his generation’s great actors.
Lowery’s first feature film, “St. Nick,” followed two children as they tramped through the woods, imagining themselves as heroic survivalists and minor outlaws. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is in some ways a spiritual continuation of that movie, with Bob playing an overgrown child, fueled by romantic notions and self-delusion. But whereas “St. Nick” was an almost dialogue-free movie, “Saints” displays Lowery’s great ear for dialogue. In one particular self-mythologizing monologue, delivered with false bravado and subtle humor by Affleck, Lowery’s writing has all the verve, tightness and swagger of Quentin Tarantino.
In his quest to return to Ruth, Bob is aided and hindered by a sagacious old-timer named Skerritt (a subtle and tortured Keith Carradine, who first appeared in the Robert Altman Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”). Skerritt wants to protect Bob from pending doom — and the introduction of some mysterious bounty hunters indicates Bob is headed for trouble either at the hand of the law or outside of it — but he has more interest in the safety of Ruth. In this uneven love triangle between Bob, Wheeler and Ruth, Skerritt plays the omnipresent referee.
After unspooling in the first two acts, the frayed story returns to a tight form as the suspense builds. What begins as a Malick-esque exploration of light and warmth moves into the dark recesses of cold loneliness and potential danger. The rich and powerful visual tapestry won Bradford Young cinematography honors at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
The limited action and percolating intrigue that rises from the ashes of the early shootout is propelled by a fantastic soundtrack from Daniel Hart. The score, which blends plucked guitars, bowed fiddles and hand claps, is more folk music than country. Which brings us to that title. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a bit of a mouthful. But once you see the movie, it makes perfect sense.
The title comes from a misheard name of a folk tune that Lowery came across years ago. While it makes no literal sense, it captures the essence of a story that seems to have existed for decades before we ever heard it. It is magical, lyrical, nonsensical, tragic, redemptive and confusing in the way only romantic love can be. It embodies sadness and hope. Like a song.