Sundance Film Festival Winner (U.S. Dramatic Cinematography Award) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a slow-paced romantic Western drama. It’s background is the Texas Hill Country of the 1970s, where time has stood still and echoes of folk heroes who used “thievin'” to better their lives fade lingeringly in the dust trails of human experience.
If you are an Indie buff who enjoys cinema craft over plot logic, you will enjoy the poetic bursts in the screenplay by director and writer David Lowrey. Nods also go to the lighting and cinematic work of Bradford Young, though I didn’t think his over use of the medium shot was exceptional and would have preferred (The film has been likened to Terrance Malik’s Badlands. Lowrey has said he was influenced by Altman’s MaCabe and Mrs. Miller and the recent, There Will Be Blood.) the long shot with the amber tones. I did think the original music by Daniel Hart was smashing, exceptional in conveying the themes and foreshadowing the the rising conflicts between Bob Muldoon’s enemies and the lawmen who intend to capture him after his sixth prison escape.
Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck ) is a thoughtful, modern outlaw who has stowed money away to create a better life for his pregnant wife, Ruth Gutherie (Rooney Mara) and their coming child. Because he is more of a threat to his boss, masterminding thief, Skerritt (in a solid, well paced performance by Keith Carradine as a father-figure, possibly interested in Ruth) and Skerritt’s henchmen, than to the average citizen, Lowrey predisposes us to overlook Muldoon’s criminal nature. Lowrey, in the vein of lovers Bonnie and Clyde, makes Muldoon and Ruth sympathetic figures because of their adoration for each other and because Muldoon is a good husband in his willingness to “take the rap” and sacrifice his freedom for Ruth when Ruth shoots and wounds lawman Patrick Wheeler (beautifully played by Ben Foster) in their escape attempt which fails.
Lowrey sets up the star-crossed lovers’ theme with the separation of Bob in prison and Ruth raising her child in the shadow of Skerritt who has bought her a house. Skerritt isn’t just being kindly we learn deep into the film. Carradine shows Skerritt’s multi-layered impulses. He has a paternalistic/romantic interest in Ruth and a hunger for the money which Muldoon stole from him and stashed somewhere. Skerritt patiently waits for Bob to successfully escape and make his way back to his wife so he can have him followed and taken care of. Ruth, his child and their future are the only important things in Muldoon’s life.Skerrit knows this and bides his time for Bob’s return.
The main part of the film deals with the aftermath of Bob’s prison break and his long journey back to Ruth keeping our interest with Bob’s slow movement through rough Western landscapes, interspersed with flashbacks of their tender love as a spur to keep him going, including his reading of love letters to Ruth. Meanwhile, Ruth’s ironic and slim friendship with Sheriff Patrick Wheeler (the man she injured) adds a complication. Ruth has become the focal point of three men’s lives and they are possessive which dissolves any easy outcome. Wheeler is sweet on her and also hangs around after Muldoon’s successful prison break, expecting, like Skerritt, that Bob will risk the demons of hell to come for her and the child he has never seen.
Lowrey has no hesitation in spilling ironies. For Muldoon, the situation is hopeless with lawmen watching Ruth up close and personal, and fatherly varmints like Skerritt lurking in her backyard ready to pounce. Yet, Muldoon, against what should be his better judgment, presses on defying fate. He crawls over obstacles and confronts dangers for her love and the promise that she will wait for him to rescue her from life. It is a notion positioning the final ending in Westerns from The Wild Bunch, Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This romantic hero is caught up in his own myth-making. Does he have anything better to do with his life?
The plot is craggy and muddled. We don’t find out until much later that Skerritt, engineering the robberies, has used Muldoon as his go-to-thief and that Muldoon has double-crossed him. The thread of logic has been chopped. Intentions of craft have convoluted the simplicity of clear understanding. Though the flashbacks, when used to illuminate the relationship between Muldoon and Ruth work, other scenes with the hit men and when Bob meets Skerritt in his store, cloud the relationship dynamics between Ruth, Bob and Skerritt and keep us wondering, and not in a good way. Wouldn’t it have been better to magnify the tension clearly showing how Bob is squeezed on all sides? Wouldn’t this tension enhance our emotional involvement in Bob’s situation because now we see how and why Skerritt is his enemy, especially if it is earlier in the plot? Finally, the simple,clear writing of such scenes would have enhanced Bob’s stark poetry in his love letters scenes. The contrast between simply written scenes and those with dense poetic expression would have sent this film on a trajectory toward greatness. Instead, it is mired in notions of paying nostalgic homage to the “death of the West and the Western,” (a la Cormac McCarthy) when it could have been so much more.
Rooney Mara as Ruth is mesmerizing, spare and graceful. In scenes with other characters, even the daughter, I found my eyes roving back to her stoic face and haunting looks. She does little, but it is tremendously affecting, and when she does break down at the end, it comes as a breathtaking surprise. Casey Affleck is the romantic hero watching himself walk between the raindrops. He remains static and relentless. The section when he comes most alive is in his reading of the love letters, and when he delivers the beautiful, poetic lines directly looking into the camera, presumably at the image of Ruth in his mind. In those segments he is stunning. In other parts he is unmoving and dead, an interesting choice, which I’m not sure is his or my interpretation and I’m not sure it worked to advantage his portrayal of Bob. Carradine is a true snake and snake charmer, dueling images of light and dark which he portrays wondrously. Ben Foster is intense, sensitive, sweet. Like Mara, his Wheeler is minimalistic, but in “doing little”he conveys a richness of emotion in his dark eyes. His performance is compelling.
This is a good film. It could have been a great one. Many would disagree with me and that’s fine. In execution of craft it is excellent. However, the writing should have been refined. Caveat: a movie screenplay is paramount. It is the foundation upon which film craft can springboard to innovative heights. With Aint’ Them Bodies Saints, the plane is airborne, but the flight is cut short and the view from on high is middling when it wants to be spectacular. See it for the performances and the music and if you love those cool, old Westerns made in the 1960s-70s.