AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (David Lowery, 2013)
The latest armed robbery by husband and wife Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) goes south when it leads to them and their partner getting holed up in a shack shooting it out with the cops in Texas hill country. In the exchange of gunfire their accomplice Freddy (Kentucker Audley), the son of their criminal mentor Skerritt (Keith Carradine), is killed while Ruth wounds police officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). The outlaws have no choice but to surrender, and Bob accepts all of the blame to keep his pregnant wife from also going to the penitentiary. Although they are being forced apart, he promises he’ll be with Ruth and their unborn child soon.
Nearly four years later Ruth and daughter Sylvie (Kennadie Smith and Jacklynn Smith) have something resembling a normal life in a small town. She leaves her wild ways behind to support her kid. Skerritt sees to it that they have a home next to his, although his charity may just as well be a means of keeping an eye out for Bob if he ever manages to break out of prison. Indeed, on his sixth attempt, Bob escapes. Based on the passionate letters he wrote to Ruth for the duration of his incarceration, their former associates and law enforcement expect him to turn up eventually at her door.
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS is set in what looks to be the 1970s, and the style is reminiscent of that decade’s new Hollywood even if the scenario belongs to classic westerns taking place in the Old West a hundred years prior. Through spare storytelling, magic hour cinematography, and naturalistic voiceover writer-director David Lowery’s film displays the influence of Terrence Malick, BADLANDS in particular. Although Lowery zips through considerable plot, he’s far more interested in mood than narrative details.
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS swells with regret and romantic longing. Bob imagines a future with the woman he loves and the little girl he has yet to meet. The intense singular focus undiminished by the circumstances bestows nobility on the character despite the shortcomings that led him and Ruth to be separated. Affleck transforms Bob into a sympathetic figure by wearing his heart on his sleeve and seeming naive to the situation’s reality, yet his overwhelming passion is also a weapon for making a reunion with Ruth possible.
Ruth’s feelings for Bob are harder to discern, not because she has reason to love him less but because his presence will complicate the stability she needs to care for Sylvie. Mara maintains the film’s internal tension by being difficult to read as she processes what Bob’s escape means and how she needs to respond. Ruth has made it through recent years by hiding the truth, so there’s suspense in determining her real motivation in entertaining Patrick’s shy flirtations and sadness in knowing she is probably stuck in a spot unresolved without at least one person suffering grievous injury.
The characters in AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS receive sanctification of a sort through self-denial. They are permitted to express affection but only from a distance, for direct contact possesses too much mortal or emotional danger. Lowery’s achingly beautiful film vibrates with the knowledge that sometimes love means depriving oneself from giving in to it.