There’s no question that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a visually stunning movie. Though set in Texas during the 1970s, it was filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana. Cinematographer Bradford Young takes full advantage of the natural landscape and his exceptional ability to capture light in a shot is impressive. The performances from the entire cast—Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine—are outstanding. Writer and director David Lowery certainly has a way with creating a mood. Unfortunately, all of the characters are such slippery fish, that it’s sometimes hard to connect with any of them.
The film tells the story, in semi-flashbacks, of young lovers Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Affleck) who are separated by Bob’s imprisonment for a crime that Ruth committed, one that he copped to as a way to protect her from a 25-year sentence, but not before she’d revealed she’s pregnant with Bob’s child.
Lowery does an excellent job of keeping the back story subtle and not overdoing the exposition. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss the implications that Ruth and Bob’s life of crime was taught to them by pawn shop owner Skerritt (Carradine). Those used to heavy-handed romantic foreshadowing might not realize that Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) isn’t keeping tabs on Ruth because he knows that she was the one who actually (if unintentionally) shot him. The usual trajectory of star-crossed lovers on film is that they’ll do anything to be reunited, but Ain’t Them Bodies Saints keeps Ruth’s true feelings on the matter ambiguous until the very end.
On the other hand, while we hear Bob’s pledges of undying love to Ruth, we don’t always believe them. It’s not that Affleck is a bad actor; on the contrary, it seems as if Bob is a bad person, or at least bad for Ruth. Perhaps this is why Skerritt comes down so hard on him after he escapes: it’s his penance for pushing these two towards a fate that would inevitably prove tragic for both of them. It’s a grand gesture in a small movie about average people with dreams that are too big for them to inhabit. On that level, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints succeeds, especially in a cinematic climate of superheroes and giant robots (not that there’s anything wrong with either). It’s just unclear if the film has anything more profound to say about life.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints moves languorously until the end, when mixed signals and implications collide in a bloody climax that is more powerful than it would have been in a movie more frequently punctuated by obvious passion and violence. It also looks and feels like a 1970s character study. In this way, it’s reminiscent of Out of the Furnace, and not just because both movies share Affleck in the cast. Unlike Furnace, however, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints didn’t stay in my head for hours after it ended.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints pays obvious and beautifully executed tribute to its cinematic predecessors. Time will tell if it will resonate as deeply with an audience as those films it emulates, however.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was released on DVD through IFC Films on December 17. The two-disc special edition includes David Lowery’s feature debut St. Nick. Bonus features on the first disc are trailers, character teasers of Bob and Ruth, deleted scenes, a “behind the scenes” featurette, and an untitled Ross Brothers documentary with additional behind-the-scenes footage that is not narrated. There is also a music video of Keith Carradine performing “The Lights.”