It is not difficult to situate David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in the ranks of what we might call New Southern Cinema. Like the films of Jeff Nichols, and Scott Teems’ That Evening Sun, it owes a debt to Terrence Malick and invests a measure of calibrated nuance in its rural characters. A laconic rhythm is not necessarily indicative of a slow mind, and even the gentlest touch can be freighted with a terrible potential for violence. Antiqued to resemble a product of the 1970s, it’s a bit likea slowly accelerating old murder ballad performed by a retro folk outfit like the Lumineers or Mumford & Sons.
In a way, this is a movie all about style, but the simple story is well told and engaging enough, reminiscent of all sorts of dangerous Americana myths like Bonnie and Clyde and Charles Starkweather’s murder rampage in the late 1950s. It is another story about romantic criminals who love each other more than life, and the damage they wreak on the unimaginative conventional world. It’s a familiar fantasy, but a well-made and superbly acted one.
The key charms here are the performances of Casey Affleck, who has a wonderful knack for suggesting the existence of an inner life even when he’s playing callowing characters; Rooney Mara, Keith Carradine and - I thought I’d never write this phrase - an understated Ben Foster. Affleck and Mara are Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, the outlaw lovers; Carradine is Skeritt, the small-town crime boss with an interest in them; and Foster is Patrick Wheeler, a quiet deputy sheriff who pines for Ruth.
The story begins with a title card that somewhat unnecessarily informs us “This was Texas,” then moves to one of those establishing scenes where the tender couple walk and talk and certain things, such as a pregnancy, are revealed. This strengthens Bob’s resolve to take care of his a’comin’ family, and suddenly we are where these sorts of stories typically end, in a firefight at a ramshackle country house after a daring daylight bank robbery. Bob,Ruth and Skeritt’s son Freddy (Kentucker Audley) are caught in a hail of bullets; Freddy dies in Bob’s arms while Ruth wounds Wheeler, a deed for which Bob will take the fall. Soon he’s off to prison (but not before swearing to Ruth that he will be back), and Skeritt takes the exonerated Ruth (seems she was luckier than Starkweather’s girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate) under his protection. He sets her and her beautiful newborn daughter up in one of his houses.
Four years later, Wheeler is occasionally dropping by to small-talk with Ruth and to make sure she’s OK. Then Bob breaks out of prison.
If you’re of a mind, you might find a lot of things to be irritated about in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, from the cryptic title (which means nothing, it’s just the way Lowery misheard a song lyric) and Affleck’s voice-overs to Lowery’s penchant for Robert Altmanesque slow zooms and Daniel Hart’s tastefully twangy score. But the truth is, I really loved most of the movie, even as I was pulling it apart in my mind. It engaged me enough to care about it.
There are real virtues to this movie; it’s remarkably well crafted and beautifully shot (by Bradford Young). If it drifts a little too much toward romanticizing its tender outlaws, it’s just following in the footsteps of the masters.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints 90 Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Keith Carradine, Ben Foster Director: David Lowery Rating: Not rated Running time: 105 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 09/13/2013
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