Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starts fast. There are two lovers, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara). They are going to have a baby. They are going to commit a crime. Something goes wrong and they find themselves in a shootout with police at an abandoned house. Their friend is killed by a policeman’s bullet, and Ruth returns fire, hitting one of the gathered lawmen. Realising it’s over, Bob pries the gun from her hands, tells her to let everyone believe he was the shooter, tells her to wait for him, and they walk out with their hands up.
And then, after all this action that could fill an entire film almost, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints slows right down and begins properly. This is a film about the aftermath of events, rather than events themselves. Years pass, Ruth brings up her daughter. Bob sits in his cell and writes long letters promising that he will be coming for them. Ruth is living her smalltown life somewhere in the southern states, and Bob is trying to find a way to get back to her. And like a released convict newly appreciating the world, director David Lowery’s camera dwells on details and drifts slowly through the landscape. This visual poetry is one of the film’s major attractions, along with the beautifully nuanced performances, both from the leads and also supporting actors such as Ben Foster and Keith Carradine.
The story, while not a particularly startling or original tale, has enough to keep you interested. And the story has a knack of shifting your allegiances to characters as it unfolds. Is Bob’s single mindedness admirable or verging on obsessive, as he pushes straight for his goal of reunion, regardless of the consequences to others. And does Ruth even want him to succeed? Or has she changed since he went away, is she frightened by the intensity of his letters, and would she prefer a quiet life and the gentle friendship of Foster’s policeman? Mara’s pitch-perfect performance suggests a woman who keeps the world at arm’s length, letting nobody know what she’s truly thinking or feeling and provides an interesting contrast to Affleck’s Bob who is full of twitchy charisma who wants only one thing, and everyone knows what it is.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ setting and theme can’t help but bring to mind Westerns and although it’s set in the seventies, it’s full of old west mythology, of outlaws and lawmen, of big skies and doomed romance. Slow paced and melancholy, but compelling, and lifted by an incredible score, full of hand clapping percussion and fiddle that seems to match the story perfectly, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a movie that flirts with different genres and brings to mind at various points a variety of great movies “ from Badlands to The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or from Bonnie and Clyde to No Country For Old Men. Somehow, it doesn’t sit too uncomfortably in that kind of company either.