Dallas filmmaker David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a visually rich, meditative take on a familiar story. Casey Affleck plays Bob Muldoon, a convict in love with Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara). When the two are held up, Bonnie and Clyde-like, in an abandoned house, surrounded by police, Ruth fires a shot that kills a cop. Bob takes the fall for his love, and is thrown in jail. The rest of the film tells the tale of the two magnetically-attracted souls struggling to reconnect.
The debt to filmmaker Terrence Mallick is a clear quality, and strength, of Lowery’s film. A dreamy blend of imagery and sound pushes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ melodramatic, semi-contemporary western (the film is set in the 1970s) plot towards existential rumination. A well-realized supporting cast also deepens the dramatic complexity. Bob breaks out of jail and tries to find Ruth to run away. But while jail froze Bob’s mind and heart in the emotionally intense moment the two lovers shared on the lam, Ruth’s life inevitably moved on. Both Patrick (Ben Foster), a police officer, and Skerritt (Keith Carradine), one of Bob’s old criminal associates, have taken to looking after Ruth, and Ruth, for her own part, has begun to settle down. When Bob emerges from jail flush with romantic visions, he finds himself struggling not only for access to Ruth, but for Ruth’s own imagination of a possible future.
Carradine’s performance, like much of the supporting cast, is subtle and strong, lending grit to a story primarily populated with sweethearts. But his presence in the film is also a nod to the key role the actor played in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), an exquisite snow-set western. Like Altman’s film, Lowery takes a familiar western storyline and adds depth and meaning by focusing on rending subtle variations in character and tone. The result is a movie that continually shuffles our affections and affiliations with the characters, as well as our moral sense, while deadpanning cinematic tropes (at one point a character who is shot asks his shooter why he shot him) in a way that renders something unsensational, but rich and real.
The central thrust of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is its exploration of the morality at play in the film’s universe. The situation continually challenges legalistic interpretations of right and wrong, and presents a cosmos populated by essentially good people torn apart by irreconcilable fate. It’s a largely engaging, if slow building film, and yet unlike McCabe & Mrs Miller, which resolves itself in an unforgettable muted snowdrift showdown, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints flounders and flutters in its third act, losing some pace and urgency.
That said, with his new film, Lowery proves that his reputation as one of filmmaking’s bright new talents is well deserved. Even where Ain’t Them Bodies Saints falters, it does so under the burden of admirable ambition. Lowery strives to create a movie that breaks new ground visually and dramatically, and while what he has made will not be remembered as a classic of the genre, the movie does achieve a quiet richness, presenting a melancholic, heartbreaking romance that sticks in the mind.