Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a gorgeously composed love poem about the wild abandon of young romance and the recalibration of everything you know about yourself when you bring a child into the world.
Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) is a thief, and his love Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) is the Bonnie to his Clyde. When their big heist goes wrong and the gang have their backs to the wall in a farmhouse, a police officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) is shot by a newly pregnant Ruth and Bob decides to take the fall.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a hard film to discuss because there’s not a lot that happens. There’s not huge action set pieces, or huge character evolutions. There’s two distinct parts of the characters lives that we see, or that are referred to; the old wild days and present day. The yawning gap between those points and the mesmerising enunciation of the emotional transition between those two points is what make for such engaging viewing.
Rooney Mara plays Ruth, and when we’re introduced she’s got a steely resolve and the temper of a feral cat. Her love is so strong for Bob that she’d face death in order to be by his side. It’s the kind of sacrificial romance that makes you swoon. However, once we fast-forward through time to Ruth (Mara) with Sylvie, she’s an incredible mother. The warmth between them radiates from the screen as she’s walking her to school, nursing her in church or snuggling to read a bed time story. The Ruth we see in flash backs with Bob feels like a phase and Ruth of present day is wise and dutiful. Mara’s eyes (figuratively) bleed out her emotional roller coaster. Lowery looks to have asked his performers to turn down outward displays of emotion and simmer on the inside.
Casey Affleck’s Bob is stuck in the same youthful, nihilistic mindset that saw him incarcerated. He’s thought of nothing but getting back to Ruth and the idea of Sylvie more than the reality. As he escapes from prison and begins to make his way back, the world is different. There are friends who’ll give him shelter, but almost every exchange is underpinned by pity and regret. Firstly Nate Parker’s Sweetie, a barkeep who sheltered Bob during his pre-prison days. Parker delivers potent brief performance that interacts with Bob like he’s staring over a paper containing his eulogy. Keith Carradine’s Skerritt, is the former legitimate front to Bob and his gang’s (including Skerritt’s departed son) criminal activities. He’s all but disowned Bob, instead playing surrogate father/grandfather to Ruth and Sylvie. Bob comes back in the world expecting welcome and instead garners fear.
Ben Foster’s plays Officer Patrick Wheeler, the recipient of Ruth’s bullet that incarcerated Bob. After his recovery he becomes a guardian angel to Ruth of sorts, without ever knowing that she was behind the gun shot that nearly ended his life. Foster, though wounded in the opening of the film, never feels weak. He’s such a solid performer in any role, and plays Wheeler with toughness and tenderness.
Writer/director Lowery takes a tried premise and adds the redemptive force of a new life. Sylvie’s arrival, the physical manifestation of Bob and Ruth’s love is pure innocence and requires nurturing and protection. Every character in her orbit gets a second chance. Lowery looks at that maternal relationship with a Terrence Malick wonder. There’s a neo-western dark tones all through the long dilapidated structures and halogen lit dives; but wherever Ruth and Sylvie are, there’s magic.
Lowery’s beautiful Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is about sometimes letting go of who you are for a second chance to be who you to want to be.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David Lowery
Written by: David Lowery
Rooney Mara … Ruth Guthrie
Casey Affleck .. Bob Muldoon
Ben Foster … Patrick Wheeler
Keith Carradine … Skerritt
Kennadie Smith … Sylvie Guthrie
Jacklynn Smith … Sylvie Guthrie
Nate Parker .. Sweetie
Robert Longstreet … Cowboy Hat