Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, written and directed by David Lowery, tells the story of Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, played respectively by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Shortly after Ruth tells Bob that she’s pregnant with their child, the two get embroiled in a police chase that ends in Ruth shooting an officer and Bob going to prison for her. Fast forward four years later, and Bob has broken out of jail to reunite with his wife and his daughter that he’s never met. Set in rural Texas during the 1970s, the film moves steadily towards the inevitable but heartbreaking conclusion.
The movie’s strongest feature is easily its stunning cinematography. At times, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels like a vintage photograph, with Texas’ softly illuminated landscape rolling on for miles and miles. The use of lighting is exquisite, particularly in the way that cinematographer Bradfor Young plays with shadows. The characters frequently find themselves in half-shadow, especially Bob and Ruth, casting their motivations and reactions even further into confusion. Saints is a film that exists in an ethereal borderland between light and dark, never truly settling in either one. Young also focuses on the details of daily living in a small Texas town. Many period films use photographs and paintings as inspiration for their settings and end up looking like a painting as a result. However, this film resists that urge and instead goes for the visual detail – hands flipping through pages of a book, words flowing from the end of a pen, a dripping faucet. Bradford Young creates a look that is visually impressionistic while simultaneously bursting with warmth and life. It is quite an impressive accomplishment.
Bob and Ruth could have very easily fallen into the Bonnie and Clyde stereotype: obsessed with each other and on the run from the law. While both of these facts are true about them, the audience is able to see many more shades of both characters. Bob clearly loves Ruth, though it’s a destructive and ultimately doomed sort of love. He clearly recognizes that he isn’t the best thing for her or his little girl, even as he denies it to himself. Bob’s past haunts him, though he is now a “devil” just trying to be a man. Affleck plays all of these layers deftly, creating a flawed and realistic character out of a handful of played-out tropes. As a southerner myself, I found his accent believable and even pleasing to hear. This is yet another role in Affleck’s successful career. Also playing against tradition, Bob is much more effusive than Ruth when it comes to their love and affection. Mara presents a very self-contained young woman. Ruth presents a constant poker face to the world, not revealing how she truly feels about Bob escaping from prison or even whether she wants him to come back for her. Ruth, who could have been a rather boring or unsympathetic character, emits a palpable tension that is fascinating to watch onscreen. Mara also plays the moments note-perfect as Ruth softens, both when with her daughter and during her growing relationship with the very officer she shot.
Thematically, Saints takes a rather common story line and elevates it through both detail and ambiguity. The story of doomed outlaw lovers is no revelation in American culture. However, through Lowery’s subtle direction, the film makes them fresh again. The little details make the audience care about the love affair – Bob whispering to Ruth’s growing belly as they stakeout a building, their letters back and forth, Bob holding onto a worn-out photograph of his child who he’s never met. The same holds true for Ruth’s growing relationship with Patrick. The slightest touches and the way that the camera lingers on both of them draw the audience into what could have been an ordinary, predictable plotline. However, it is the ambiguity that Lowery keeps in the film that really makes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints effective. Bob inevitably makes his way back to Ruth, after being chased and shot by people from his former life. Lowery, however, resists the urge to go for a huge confrontation between Patrick and Bob. Ruth isn’t forced to choose between them – instead, the film ends on an uncertain note, but one that is filled with love despite all sins and the possibility for something that is better in the future. The last shot of Ruth and Bob, haunting but beautiful, perfectly encapsulates everything that makes this film captivating.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels like an old folk song – the very thing that inspired the title. It breathes like one too – moody, gorgeous, and with many blurred lines. However, the obscurity and attention to detail work together to create one of the more interesting films of the year. Do yourself a favor and go see it.