At the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic, it must be said that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is not a movie; it’s a feeling. Director David Lowery took the rugged, Americana feel of a great western, the overwhelming sentimentality of a tragic romance, the thrill of a crime drama, and the sound and tempo of some kind of epic Southern odyssey, and he created a new feeling. That feeling is conveyed in the very title, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and it overwhelms Lowery’s fourth feature project in all of the right ways.
The words “This was in Texas,” appear on the screen at the beginning of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and the “This” that we see is Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) storming away from Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) in the middle of a clearing. “This” is the familiar image of a lover’s quarrel, but what is unfamiliar is the simple and sublimely intimate manner in which the relationship between the two leads is presented. Visually, Lowery’s latest has already been compared to a Terrence Malick film, which is a testament to the absolute beauty of the piece. But “This was in [1970s] Texas,” and there’s a unique layer of sweat and grime that lingers on the two lovers and on the story itself.
When Bob takes the fall for a crime that Ruth commits, the narrative becomes concerned with the actual space between the couple. That space (and the space of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is filled with the passage of prison time, the arrival of a baby girl, love letters, and a growing, palpable longing. Bob becomes desperate to close the gap, and escapes, making the long journey back to Ruth and their daughter, and back to his troubled past in Texas.
Mara delivers a strong performance as Ruth, mastering a quiet strength that seems both uncharacteristic in a character as young as Ruth appears to be, and completely appropriate given the energy of the entire piece. Paired with Mara’s execution, David Lowery’s writing paints a complete portrait of the character’s new world as a mother; a transformation takes place in Ruth, while Bob remains an outlaw in love.
Ben Foster delivers an equally astute performance as a police officer who takes great interest in Ruth after Bob is imprisoned (and his involvement has its own complexities). Keith Carradine (Ruth’s father) and Nate Parker (Sweetie, Bob’s only friend on the outside) also deliver as the primary supporting cast. But Casey Affleck is the standout actor, and this is his saga. Down to his very jawline, Affleck captures the physicality and feeling of a sincerely romantic outlaw, one who cannot acknowledge any wrongdoing in part because of his familial dedication. An unapologetic product of his environment and own personal moral code, there’s even a bit of humor in his mentality, which Affleck reveals in subtle bits and pieces throughout.
Many plot details and relationships go unexplained in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), and viewers will notice a lack of information about the men who come after Bob, the relationship between Ruth and her father, and even the friendship between Bob and Sweetie. However, at times these seem purposeful omissions, meant to show that the very nature of crime and romance requires secrecy, and a supreme lack of logical explanation. In some instances, the details simply do not matter. Lowery is more concerned with the details of the images he does present, and this concern is what makes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stand apart from other crime/romance dramas of the year, like The Place Beyond The Pines (another brilliant work, but for very different reasons).
Perhaps it is not such a dramatic thing to say after all—that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is not a movie. Here we have a work that highlights the difference between a movie and a film. These two entities are, obviously, not binary opposites, but one could argue that the feeling of a film—brought about with careful attention to cinematography, score, and character development (all handled here with unique style and aplomb)—sits with the viewer long after the credits roll. Even with omissions in the narrative that inspire in the viewer a longing for more, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a true film. And that longing may in fact be the very foundation of Lowery’s work—the reason it is more feeling than movie, more cinematic emotion unfolding on screen than anything else.
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster
Release Date: Aug. 16, 2013