Outlaws of Love Eternally Bound
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, written and directed by David Lowery, takes patience and focus to sit through. A story that nestles into 1970s Texas about an outlaw and his wife, it does not thrive on kinetic imagery or revel in its few, short-lived violent sequences. This is very much a quiet poem reflecting its emotionally driven perspective through a gauzy, warm lens. More appropriately it’s a lullaby, infused with a soft-clapping soundtrack, meant to breathe life, instead inducing melancholic sighs and heavy eyes.
Lowery, with a few small indie films to his credit, seems clearly influenced by spirited wanderer and director Terrence Malick, whose style of filmmaking seems as though it should acquire a new genre in itself. Here, lacking the depth of Malick’s last film To The Wonder, but clearly in its reverence, the camera swings around its main subjects from all angles, capturing the sun dropped glimmers, wading between the high summer straw, awaiting the breathy dialogue to label its descriptive imagery. Captured lucidly by cinematographer Bradford Young- who won an award for this at Sundance- the big Texas sky becomes a canvas of scattered colors in vivid blue and golden hues.
The mood is established in these ethereal components but it also consumes a narrative that functions in the long processes of waiting. Casey Affleck plays Bob Muldoon, feverishly in love with wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), bandits with a baby in tow. They involve themselves in a police shootout, firing defensively from an isolated shack, and Ruth unintentionally hits an officer in the shoulder. Bob instinctively takes credit and surrenders, as the authorities escort them away in handcuffs. Their extreme bond and affection is witnessed in their seemingly magnetized heads, pulled in opposite directions while trying to stay cheek to cheek. Bob is given 25 years in prison, and Ruth promises to wait for his return.
You feel that promise in its fullest, skipping ahead four years to admire Ruth’s young and grown daughter, still just a belly bump in Bob’s growing imagination. The couple corresponds through letters adding to the nostalgic texture, and you wonder if Ruth feels the same way as her passionate writing. Officer Wheeler (a subtle Ben Foster), whom she shot unbeknownst to him, begins making frequent checkups on Ruth and her daughter and becomes a lurking, if not haunting, figure of both kindness and mistrust. Bob escapes prison and finds refuge and concealment from the law in a friend’s (Nate Parker) tavern. You don’t see his escape, but you hear Bob’s testimony and skeptical explanation that his freedom came from his “higher calling” to be a father with Ruth. Affleck is a fine actor but never fits into this passionately determined role, maybe a side effect of the story’s heavy heartbeats and dimly lit interiors. The melodrama creates an expectation of brute force that his voice and physique never quite fulfill.
Mara however, in her story-time reading southern drawl, sinks into her role with sullen gestures and sharp looks. The majority of the film follows her daily routines waiting, not as passively as a damsel in a castle, for a husband destined to return, prompting questions of devotion as Wheeler quietly increases his presence in her life.
Eliminating ambiguities is Keith Carradine as a neighbor and Bob’s mentor, threatening Bob to stay away from Ruth as he returns to find her. Then there are the anonymous bounty hunters in pursuit, armed to kill their escaped convict. They are background noise to Wheeler, who leads his own investigation, knowing Bob’s intent, and occasionally turns the film’s static atmosphere to burst with a striking suspense.
But for the raw moments of suspicion and melodic meandering, Lowery struggles to find more trenchant meaning in his rawhide boot aesthetic. In one scene Bob hitchhikes- to elude his captors- in severe physical pain, barely managing directions to a driver that asks, “Who are you?” Usually you know what your perilous protagonist will tell the man, but his question feels like ours. In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, you feel, you see, but you don’t fully know.