[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Ain't Them Bodies Saints opens today in limited release.]
David Lowery‘s confident feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints lives between old life and a new beginning; between past crimes and future punishment; between the intimate and the distant. But for me, the emotions fall through the beautiful cinematography, lyrical music, and excellent performances. This is the X-factor of any viewer: an emotional connection we struggle to explain. Lowery has made a strong movie, and one that will put him on the radar of everyone who sees Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. But for reasons I have difficulty articulating, I couldn’t feel anything from his gorgeous film.
In rural Texas in the 1970s, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and his pregnant girlfriend Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are arrested after a crime spree and a shootout. During the shootout, Ruth shoots Officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), but Bob takes the blame, and is sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. Four years later, Ruth is raising her and Bob’s child Sylvie along with some help from Bob’s father Skerritt (Keith Carradine) and Wheeler, who doesn’t know that Ruth was actually the one who shot him. When Bob breaks out of prison, Ruth has to decide if she wants to be reunited with the man she loves or hold on to the new life she’s built.
Lowery’s soft-spoken, sepia-toned picture spends the majority of its runtime switching between Bob and Ruth “talking” to each other through letters, but they’re really voicing their own hopes and insecurities since the letters acknowledge that they’ll probably never reach their destination. The couple is trying to bridge a divide in their own hearts rather than a physical space of real communication. Bob’s letters are edited by the prison, and Ruth can’t get in touch with Bob once he’s on the run. The letters are rhetorical, and they ponder what kind of life Bob and Ruth want together.
For Bob, there’s no question. His goal has always been to get back to Ruth and Sylvie, and he believes that while he “used to be the devil”, now he’s just a man. Can the devil really change? Bob certainly isn’t evil, but his life hasn’t fundamentally transformed. He still wants the money he stashed from the robberies, and he childishly believes he can have the money, his family, and live a long and happy life with no repercussions from the cops or his former partners. Ruth, on the other hand, has a much harder decision. Her love for Bob is present, but her life has changed because of Sylvie. The love between Bob and Ruth is never in doubt, but it runs up against the emotional and physical barriers created by time and circumstance. Even though most audience members tend to be pro-love, we’re forced to consider if we really want Bob and Ruth to be together.
Lowery wraps his tale in an absolutely stunning feature. On a technical level, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints dazzles with Bradford Young‘s cinematography that makes the whole film look as if it were lit by candlelight. The score fills the film with sad, lilting string music. Affleck, Mara, and Foster all give the high-caliber performances we’ve come to expect from them. The film has drawn comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick and even the Coen Brothers, but those similarities are superficial. Lowery establishes himself as a true talent rather than an imitator, and while he obviously has his inspirations (as does every director), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints makes its voice heard rather than echoing other movies.
So with such compelling themes and technical prowess, why didn’t I have any emotional response to the film? At this point, I should wrestle with the movie, search my feelings, pick Ain’t Them Bodies Saints apart, and say “Aha! That’s why I didn’t get anything from it!” Usually, I can describe why a film didn’t click, but there’s no specific reason why Lowery’s film didn’t resonate with me. Yes, the movie drags a bit and the characters can feel static simply because Ruth is mostly indecisive and Bob is mostly stubborn. Nevertheless, Lowery has powerfully executed what he sets out to do. It may be unfair to grade a film when I can’t put into words why it didn’t work for me, but that’s also the human factor. The emotional wavelength of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is completely out of sync with my own.
I still highly recommend the movie, if for no other than reason than to see the emergence of a strong new voice in Lowery. Some, if not most, viewers will be moved by Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and at the very least, it’s a thoughtful picture about love’s ability to endure and yet still succumb to the way people grow and change. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints isn’t a heartless picture by any stretch; it simply didn’t touch my heart.