“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”--written and directed by David Lowery--is one of those movies you have to see to really appreciate. On paper, its premise doesn’t sound like anything new, and it isn’t very complex or intricately plotted. The film is purely an exercise in the craft of filmmaking; directing, editing, sound, cinematography and acting. The picture revolves around a young outlaw couple living in 1970’s Texas, (played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) though before I move on I feel like I should mention that those expecting a raucous, action packed film about an outlaw couple should look elsewhere. As “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” takes a quiet, poetic and meditative look at these young outlaw’s lives.
We first meet our outlaw couple in the middle of shootout between them and the cops. The male outlaw Bob Muldoon (Affleck) decides to turn himself in and take the blame for everything that’s happened so that his wife Ruth (Mara) can raise their child—which she’s carrying at this time—in peace. Bob is sent to the slammer and Ruth given a house by an old friend Skerritt (Keith Carradine) where she takes care of her daughter Sylvie. One day, Bob escapes and sets out across Texas to reunite with Ruth, who meanwhile has befriended a shy cop named Patrick (Ben Foster). In this way “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” isn’t so much about Ruth and Bob’s lives as outlaws but about their lives after that period. They were wild, carefree outlaws once but now that they have a child it’s time for them to grow up and settle down.
As far as story goes, that’s pretty much it. Not much actually happens in the movie, in fact Lowery excludes a number of scenes and events one would usually see in an outlaw movie, Bob’s escape from prison for example. However “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” isn’t concerned with plot but with character and mood, as well as creating an atmosphere. And Lowery--along with his crew—certainly does create a wonderfully beautiful and dreamy atmosphere. The rich, soft cinematography by Bradford Young is absolutely gorgeous, giving the movie an old fashioned and glamorous look. Most of the outdoor scenes are either photographed at sunrise or sunset, giving them a slightly orange tinge. While the scenes that take place within crowded interiors have an amber glow.
Daniel Hart’s instrumental score mirrors the moods in the movie almost perfectly. Sometimes it’s calming and tranquil, and at other times it can be stirring and haunting. However, the instances when Lowery doesn’t use the music—and instead emphasizes the other non-diegetic sounds within the movie, like the wind, rain, birds, crickets or the sound of a distant train horn—are just as effective. Together these components create a feeling of comfort and nostalgia. The small town suburban neighborhood where Ruth and Sylvie live, the wide-open empty fields with deserted farmhouses and the cloudless (or nearly cloudless) orange skies evoke a simpler, bygone era. This atmosphere that Lowery creates is perhaps the best thing about the movie.
Although it also helps that the lead performances are strong. Mara (who has become one of the best young American actors) gives a subtle but powerful performance. Her Ruth is gentle and nurturing when it comes to taking care of her daughter but also tough and resilient. After all, she did participate in the criminal deeds along with her husband; she even shoots and injures a cop during the beginning shootout. She waits patiently for Bob to return so their family can be complete but at the same time she’s perfectly capable of raising Sylvie on her own.
Affleck is admittedly a little bland but this blandness actually works in his favor. Bob is not overly showy and arrogant and charismatic like most outlaw heroes but instead straightforward and plain. His love of Ruth and Sylvie (who he hasn’t met) seems to be the only thing motivating his actions as opposed to money or the thrill of committing crime. He’s a dreamer—when he reunites with Ruth and Sylvie he plans to take them away and build a farm somewhere—but doesn’t have a solid plan for fulfilling that dream and so he takes on each day one at a time without thinking of possible repercussions. Given the circumstances of the story Mara and Affleck only have a few moments together, but during those few delicate and intimate scenes (for example, at the beginning when they’re sitting in a pickup truck talking about their future as they wait for their criminal accomplice to show up) we’re completely convinced of their character’s relationship.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a hard film to recommend. Most people simply won’t have the patience for it, or will feel frustrated that more doesn’t happen in it, and that’s perfectly fine. But at the same time, it’s refreshing to see something this simple and small scale but at the same time so beautiful and engaging. It goes to show that good filmmaking can elevate material that doesn’t sound all that interesting to begin with.