Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a film striving for poetry that despite its visual beauty falters because of the improbability of its love story and poor writing. Taking place in 1970s Texas it creates a moody atmosphere to tell the story of doomed lovers Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara). The story is rather conventional. It opens in a sun dappled field in which we see a disagreement between Bob and Ruth that turns into a lovely moment between the lovers when Ruth reveals she’s pregnant. There is a sense of codependency from the on set especially on Bob’s side that courses through the rest of the story. They plan a robbery with their friend that quickly takes an ugly turn showing how foolish and inexperienced these criminals are. During the shoot out Ruth shoots police officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). With their friend killed and cornered by the cops, Bob surrenders and takes the blame so that Ruth will be able to raise their child.
Bob is sentenced to prison and Ruth has to pick up the pieces of her life without him. She’s aided by friend/father-figure Skerritt (a standout Keith Carradine) who it is hinted planned the robbery. He helps her out placing her in a nice, small home next to his. The film’s story really gains traction when it jumps four years later with Ruth raising her little girl and Bob trying to make another break from prison, this one successful. We watch as the lives of all these characters shift in the wake of Bob’s escape and desire to reunite to start a new life with Ruth.
The main problem with the film is the lack of chemistry between Bob and Ruth. For this film to work we must buy the love story between them. We don’t get many scenes with them before Bob is sent to prison. These scenes don’t account for why they’re attracted to each other, why they’ve chosen this life or much of who they are.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are actors I’ve never been much impressed with despite some interesting films between them. I have always felt they fall short. With this film, Affleck continues his portrayal of male impotence in the face of violent larger forces beyond his control. It isn’t a terrible performance but it pales to some of the far more striking work of the supporting actors.
David Lowery who wrote and directed the film is able to bring out fascinating performances in the other actors. There is an interesting contradiction between Mara’s girlishness and the internal, undefined darkness of the character. Unfortunately, she doesn’t always work in the film. There are moments when she needs to come across as hardened by the circumstances of her life but instead reads as insolent. But there are some beautiful grace notes she gives her character. But it is supporting players, Keith Carradine and Ben Foster that give the most powerful performances.
Ben Foster continues to be the most interesting aspect of films he plays supporting roles in. But his simmering intensity can’t make up for the other parts of the narrative that are lacking. His character is strangely drawn to Ruth. Thus falling into a long line of films in which men are drawn to female characters who are poorly written enigmas making the attraction both improbably and rather pointless feeling.
There’s been quite a few comparisons to Terrence Malick and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But Ain’t Them Bodies Saints lacks the poetry of the former’s oeuvre and the beauty, thematic resonance and sharper writing of the latter.
The film aims for the black, beating heart of the southern gothic works of Carson McCullers. Unfortunately, the dialogue at times comes across as empty pastiche especially in the letters between Bob and Ruth recounted in voice over. None of this is aided by the slow pace of the film. While not a problem in and of itself, it only highlights the lack of purpose and unifying theme.
While Lowery is able to create flashes of beauty and bring out striking performances in the supporting players, the film ultimately ends of feeling like an empty exercise in the southern gothic milieu. Without having chemistry between the two lovers, a stronger theme and a narrative with more purpose the film falters under its lofty ambitions.