With a mere three feature length films to his name (along with over a dozen short films) David Lowery shows directorial capabilities well beyond what his body of work suggests in the stunningly realized Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a romantic crime drama film in the vein of Days of Heaven in which three characters have the past catch up with them in the most tragic of ways. As the film begins we are introduced to Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), a young outlaw on the constant run from the authorities, he and his pregnant wife Ruthie (Rooney Mara), who takes part in the heists.
When they finally find themselves corralled by police officers in the grandest Bonnie and Clyde fashion, Ruthie shoots officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), which then forces them to surrender. Bob takes the blame for shooting the policeman and is sent away to prison.
Years later, he decides to take matters into his own hands and escapes prison, setting on a trip back home to his wife and the little daughter he’s never met. Alerted by his breakout police officers begin questioning Ruthie, who has no idea where her husband might be, but deep inside knows he’s heading towards her. Filled with formidable performances from its young cast Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a throwback to ’70s dramas in which simple stories were used to deliver larger truths about the world. Whether we agree with the life of crime Bob chose for himself or not, we are forced to see him as a human being who craves the love of those he left behind.
Affleck turns in one of his best performances to date, making Bob an unlikely romantic hero in denial of all the pain and suffering he’s brought upon others. Watching his desperate acts as he gets involved in more trouble can’t help but break our hearts. In scene after scene he is able to make us look past the moral implications of his actions and takes on the role of a bruised soldier going back home from a war he provoked.
But Lowery is a director (and writer) smart enough not to turn his character into a simple crook, as Bob seeks refuge in the house of a friend we come to see the poverty and desolation in which these characters live. The promise of a better life that was made for them during their youth is nowhere to be found in these empty bars, desolate country landscapes, and tenebrous cottages.
Mara, who up to this point has only been known for her brooding mysterious performances,is finally given the opportunity to become a true romantic heroine. We understand why Bob wants to be with her at all costs. In flashbacks and earlier scenes we see her display a tenderness she otherwise never shows. As Bob plays with her belly early in her pregnancy, she exudes warmth that couldn’t be further away from her icy demeanor in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In scenes with her young daughter (played by twins Kenaddie Smith and Jacklynn Smith) we become convinced that Ruthie doesn’t only love her daughter because she gave birth to her, but because she is a constant reminder of Bob.
While the leads are impressive, Foster’s performance as the police officer who has no idea his life is based on a lie, is perhaps the most devastating in the film. We see officer Patrick develop something resembling love towards Ruthie and he doesn’t seem to understand whether this comes from a place of guilt (after all, he rightfully sent her husband to prison) or from a place of true devotion. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, Patrick makes an unexpected appearance at Ruthie’s daughter’s birthday where he presents her with a tiny instrument that once belonged to him. His taking on as a father figure speaks about the film’s point of view on justice.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was gorgeously shot by Bradford Young (who had a stellar 2013 along with this and Mother of George), his work has often been compared to the cinematography in Terrence Malick’s films, because they both display a keen eye to capture the beauty of nature, but that’s pretty much where all similarities stop. While Malick allows his cameras to wander taking in all the elements at once, Young is more static, he uses nature not as an endless canvas on which to paint with his lens, but as an element of contrast; we never know the horrors or surprises that lie beyond the tall grass and the ominous trees. At any time they could signify the return of Bob (and with it even more tragedy to all involved) or the relentless passing of time, as human lives change and vanish, while nature remains a silent witness.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is presented by IFC Films in a stunning HD transfer that highlights both the visuals and the film’s peculiar soundscape. Bonus features include a making of documentary, deleted scenes, a music video, teasers, a trailer and best of all is the inclusion of St. Nick, Lowery’s very first film whose story of siblings on the run who find solace in the woods, shares thematic similarities with this one.