Film Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints

A gorgeously shot film about criminal lovers that's also a homage to ’70s-style cinema of romantic outlaws.

Already honored with a slot in Critics Week at Cannes, Ain't Them Bodies Saints fires into orbit director David Lowery, a bold new filmmaking talent. An elegiac mini-western set in Texas hill country in the early ’70s, Bodies reflects an array of influences, including Terrence Malick's penchant for sepia-colored countryside shot during the magic hour; ’70s outlaw films such as Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller; the dissonant score of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood; even fiction by Cormac McCarthy and Marilyn Robinson. Yet in this third feature (following two small indies), Lowery weaves multiple inspirations into his own magical vision. And though the plot is wafer-thin, Bodies is less about story than mood and visual poetry, playing like a folk ballad about criminal lovers.

Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are crazy-in-love young outlaws on an extended crime spree. They're finally nabbed by lawmen after a shootout in the Texas hills; although Ruth wounds the Sheriff (Ben Foster), Bob takes the rap for her. Four years later, he escapes from prison and sets forth to find Ruth and their daughter, born during his incarceration. In the interim, Ruth is protected by and settled in her own house by the fatherly Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a character whose motives, in the way of this film, remain mysterious. While never fully renouncing her bond with Bob, Ruth turns toward the possibilities of a new life offered by the Sheriff. At bottom, the film's a triangle, but one that saturates the dramatic space with an aching sense of loss.

At the core is Rooney Mara's Ruth, uneasily suspended between her past with Bob and her responsibilities as the mother of a little girl (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith). Her outlaw lover, lost in his own myth, naively expects he can make a new life with Ruth and their child—but has she moved beyond her wild-child self? While all the casting is inspired, Mara delivers a career best in conveying the dueling notions of romance and responsibility. In her reined-in performance her conflict is never articulated, but embodied by gaze, hesitation, indirection. Bradford Young, the richly gifted DP, shoots Mara's pale, angular features like a hill-country Madonna.

The ante is upped with Foster's Sheriff's growing fascination with Ruth. Here, too, Lowery refreshes a tired film trope—lawman falls for the person who almost offed him—by making the Sheriff a gentlemanly introvert, unwilling to press on Ruth what she may be reluctant to accept. (Lowery claims the shy, romantic Sheriff is his surrogate.) As always, Foster invests his character with intriguing depths, again confirming he's one of our most compelling actors. Though it's never clear where Carradine's character fits in the script, he's the most handsome presence onscreen, all chiseled features and gravitas.

Affleck is a distinctive actor who's become almost typecast as an alienated soul from the lunatic fringe with homicide on his mind. In recent films he has killed Brad Pitt's Jesse James and ravaged the countryside as a psychotic sheriff. Perhaps Affleck's best work to date, his Bob Muldoon is a haunting throwback, slave to a vision ploughed under by changing times. The film must be seen—and heard—for Affleck's voice alone, a twangy, grainy drawl high up in the throat that's more in monologue with himself than directed to the world outside him. The portrayal perfectly meshes an actor with a director's vision. The title, you'll want to know, is taken from a country-western song, but on the soundtrack Lowery uses original music by talented Daniel Hart, a dissonant aural tapestry of jagged strings and hand claps that cleverly plays against the film's romantic heart.