David Lowery’s quietly beautiful new film, his most ambitious to date, is at first glance a standard love story, set in the American West of what appears to be the early 1970s. Over time, however, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints transcends its plot, revealing itself as a cinematic meditation on the daunting power of loneliness.
Two working-class lovers, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), get themselves involved in a Bonnie and Clyde-like robbery that leads to a shootout at the backwoods Texas shack they call home. A friend and accomplice is picked off in the mayhem. Ruth, who is pregnant, shoots a cop in the shoulder, a crime for which Bob takes credit. With Bob in prison, the two lovers swear themselves to each other. After a few years—and a few failed attempts at escape—Bob breaks out and sets off through the mountains to reunite with Ruth and see his daughter for the first time.
The movie’s tension builds as Bob, fresh from captivity, wanders furtively about town, waiting for the moment he can safely see his girls. He’s followed by a trio of men with guns and black hats, whom, it is assumed, Bob has wronged in the past. To add to this, the well-intentioned sheriff on Bob’s case (Ben Foster)—who took the bullet in the shootout—may or may not be romantically interested in Ruth.
I speak conditionally here because Mr. Lowery, who wrote the laconic script, doesn’t give the viewer much context. Scenes begin in medias res, and the film never backtracks to explain them (though some things are subtly revealed). The very nature of the robbery, for instance, is a mystery, as is the depth of Bob and Ruth’s love, which is taken for granted as a thing of great power and substance.
That’s not to say the actors are one-dimensional or the script is weak. Ms. Mara gives an achingly tender performance as a pained single mother. And Mr. Affleck is a convincing outlaw, giving Bob Muldoon the aura of a character straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Keith Carradine, as Skerritt, a kind of wise guardian to the film’s ill-fated lovers, is excellent. But the characters—and the love story—often feel secondary to Mr. Lowery’s gorgeous directorial style.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is nice to look at. Many scenes—thanks to Bradford Young’s dramatically delicate cinematography—call paintings to mind. The chiaroscuro on Ruth’s face as she sits in church, staring off into space with her sleeping daughter on her lap, has the beatific grace of a Caravaggio. Bleak farmland vistas and quiet night scenes are evocative of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.
All of this beauty is hardly gratuitous. If Ain’t Them Bodies Saints seems insubstantial in structure, it may be because Mr. Lowery has chosen to focus on appearance over plot, which doesn’t mean the movie is less effective as a result. The film comes off as a profound montage of vivid expressions, gestures and landscapes—more a story about solitude than a romance between Bob and Ruth, who spend much more time apart than they do together.
There is a palpable undercurrent of quiet desperation that runs through the picture, whose somber tone and slow pacing (made all the more moving by the ebb and flow of a sublime score by Daniel Hart and some stylistic nods to Terrence Malick) have a gritty, American ring to it. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints doesn’t register very deeply as a love story, but there is no doubting that it is an act of love.
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS
WRITTEN BY: David Lowery
DIRECTED BY: David Lowery
STARRING: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster
RUNNING TIME: 105 min.