“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”, which expands to additional theaters on Aug. 23, is the story of a passionate, young outlaw couple. But rather than showing us their crime spree, director David Lowery shows us the fallout of their crimes. When the law finally catches up with Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), it is she who wounds a cop, but he who takes the fall.
Four years pass. Bob escapes from prison and sets out to find Ruth and their daughter, Sylvie, who was born during his incarceration. While Bob is away, Ruth and Sylvie settle into a nice life for themselves, while a local cop, (Ben Foster) secretly pines for Ruth , a local shopkeeper from Bob and Ruth’s past (Keith Carradine) watches over the girls.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a studied examination of loneliness, love, crime, motherhood and redemption. This romantic indie western is a love-letter to the iconic New Hollywood fllms of the 70s with an extra special nod to Terrence Malick in the form of reverential shots of the Texas hills that punctuate the vast space (emotional and in some cases physical) between the characters. At turns the proceedings are evocative of “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Easy Rider” and “Days of Heaven”, but Lowery manages to harken back to that style without merely imitating it.
All of the beautiful cinematography and film smarts would be for naught, if Lowery didn’t have a top-notch cast to carry things off. Mara gives a typically powerful performance as a woman trapped between two lives--on one side of the coin is her violent, wild past with Bob, a man she still loves, however different she is from the person he knew. Opposite that is her life as, for all intents and purposes, a single mother. She works, keeps her head down and is entirely devoted to her daughter. That Bob is an outlaw bent on taking them away from the life she’s built in his absence is clearly something that attracts Ruth as much as it repels her. Affleck, meanwhile, uses his signature voice and demeanor to create a man motivated only by the love he holds for Ruth and Sylvie, but one we also know to be capable of crime and violence. With this pair of doomed lovers Lowery seems to dare the viewer to consider if Bob and Ruth will ever be able to find true redemption. Are they more than the sum of their actions? What must they do to be forgiven for their indiscretions? And moreover, do they want to be forgiven?
Ben Foster goes somewhat against-type here as an all-around good guy after a string of well-known roles that tend toward the villainous, but he carries the task of suffering his love for Ruth in silence admirably. Without the right level of subtlety Patrick would fail to function as the safe, warm counterpoint to Bob’s smoldering danger. Keith Carradine delivers a compelling performance as Skerritt; a role that could have been merely a throwaway turn in the hands of a lesser actor. The fact that Carradine is a bonafide participant of the New Hollywood era (“Nashville”, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) is an added bonus for period fans, and has the ring of a seal of approval.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is character driven and moody, prone to introspection and no stranger to gratuitous landscapes, and so lacks broad blockbuster appeal, but for those willing to go along with a modern take on a classic aesthetic, it’s one of the most delightfully singular efforts to come about in some while.