Borrowing more than a little from the style and substance of Terence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven, as well as from a few other iconic filmmakers, writer-director David Lowery imbues Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with dozens of quietly stunning moments depicting the love story of a Texas Hill Country couple whose brief career as bank robbers ends with a shooting. The husband, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), takes the rap and does time while Ruth (Rooney Mara) raises their little girl in self-imposed small-town limbo. No quibbles about spoiler alerts—all this information is conveyed to us moments into the movie, then picks up to where Bob has gone on the lam, determined to return to his girls. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is nothing if not an accident waiting to happen, or a cinematic lesson on the irresistible-force paradox. Except that we’re not sure if Ruth will remain the immoveable object.
She’s not the only one who’s waiting to see what happens when Bob hits town. A trio of gnarly looking dudes, perhaps an homage to the opening sequence of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, interrogates Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the laconic shopkeeper who has quietly provided for Ruth and her daughter over the years. Sheriff Pat Wheeler (the name shared by John Wayne’s embattled sheriff in Hawks’ Rio Bravo and here played by Ben Foster) goes on patrol, asks questions, returns to the site of his own shooting by—perhaps unbeknownst to him—Ruth. He’s clearly drawn to her, and the scenes in which he fumblingly tries to offer her some bit of his devotion are sweet and painful all at once. Cinematographer Bradford Young masterfully shoots each scene in such a way that you can sense the warmth of late summer afternoon sun on your skin.
Lowery gets enormous emotional coverage of his narrative from his performers. Affleck’s thwarted bank robber is romantic and rash, but never evil. At one point when he expresses shock and disbelief that someone has gotten shot, it seems an utterly natural reaction from a uniquely quirky character. Mara has the slightly more challenging role, as there are times we wonder just how complicit Ruth is in Bob’s desperate plan, and she’s clearly, without voicing it, aware of her power over men. It’s a mesmerizing performance, at times Earth mother, at times goddess, always sly and wary. Foster, admittedly a favorite of this reviewer, is almost unrecognizable here as a simple, good man willing to forgive and protect. And Carradine is a gem, economical of verse and expression, yet devastatingly effective. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a title that apparently doesn’t mean anything other than a misunderstood snippet of lyric Lowery once heard, is a strong calling card from a supremely talented moviemaker.