An atmospheric failure, the criminal lovers saga Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a dramatically inert picture, and while director David Lowery works his camera overtime, the characters and story largely fail to engage, stilted under the weight of a solemn tone and overly mannered direction.
Reckless petty criminal Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and love Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are young Texas paramours blazing with passion, dreaming of a future and family. She’s pregnant when the pair engage in a fateful shootout with police over some stolen money. She wounds a cop but he takes the fall, landing a few years in the pen. Almost immediately, both characters feel underwritten, and if the screenplay, also written by Lowery, had begun a few scenes earlier to let us know them better before immediately thrusting them into this situation, we might have cared more.
Locked up Bob pines for their reunion and while Ruth moves away to raise their toddler and goes on with her life, she just may be keeping the flame herself, while growing close to deputy Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), a rakish yet sensitive cop who has her under surveillance after Affleck springs jail. The majority of the picture charts this tentative relationship and Bob’s drive to return to Ruth and the daughter he’s never seen nor met.
The most interesting thing about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is Mara, a minimalist actress who always goes inward, suggesting here a believable emotional quandary and recesses of insecurity. We’re never quite sure which way she will go, or what she really feels, and Mara’s ability to hold the camera, and us, in suspense—she also did this expertly in Side Effects earlier this year—is what makes this leisurely, measured movie watchable.
Yet despite this performance and able support from the baby-faced Affleck as an outlaw in spite of himself, and a solid, underrated Foster who also lends an unpredictable bent, what Ain’t Them Bodies Saints lacks in the narrative it tries to make up for in aesthetics, playing like an unveiled ode to Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Terrence Malick’s 70s heartland crime sagas Badlands and Days of Heaven, albeit with but none of those pictures’ elegance and passion and doom. Keith Carradine even turns up in a mysterious supporting role, sealing the connection to the last great era of moviemaking. We know the cards will catch up with all three principals here, but we don’t much care. When the final act showdown eventually occurs, whatever force it manages comes from the actors, not the screenplay.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a good-looking, uninvolving bore.