Rating:In the opening scene of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) is pursuing his sweetheart Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) through a field, finally getting her to slow down and reveal that she is pregnant. Based on the way the characters dress and speak (not to mention the ominous title card that says, “This Was Texas”), I thought the film took place in the late 19th century. Cut to the next scene as Bob and Ruth plan a robbery and it’s obvious the film is set in the ’70s. Judging by the tone and pacing of writer-director David Lowery’s sophomore feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a homage to American cinema of the brown era, one that has many beautiful parts that don’t add up to an interesting whole.
After a shoot-out, Bob is carted off to jail and Ruth is left to raise their child on their own. We learn that Bob has one goal mind: gain his freedom and see his family. A few years pass and Ruth learns from Patrick (Ben Foster), a cop wounded in the shootout and has since fallen for our heroine, that Bob has escaped. As her paramour gets closer, it is unclear whether Ruth has moved on and given up the outlaw life to raise her young daughter.
Convoluted feelings and unclear motivations cloud Lowery’s story, one where it appears more thought has gone into its gorgeous cinematography than creating emotional lives for its characters. We know where Bob stands, but that’s because we hear one voiceover after another about how feels. It’s a classic case of showing versus telling and the distance and longing isn’t really tangible. We don’t feel the ache and the burn that Bob writes about. We just know it’s there because Bob says so.
Lowery also seems hypnotized by the idea that his film is a tone poem and writes his dialogue in a way that feels like lines rejected by Terrence Malick. Mara and Affleck dig into Lowery’s words, but half the time it’s nearly impossible to understand them for the twang and the muttering. It feels disingenuous and without the aid of subtitles, a willful approach to obfuscate dialogue that really carries no gravitas.
The relationship between Patrick and Ruth is also unclear and flat. The underlying irony exists that it was Ruth, and not Bob, who actually shot Patrick, but Lowery does little more than tease us with the secret. Besides some maternal underpinnings, Ruth is essentially a flat character and it’s hard to really care if she decides to go off with Bob, fall in love with Patrick or none of the above. Lowery casts her as a fiercely protective mother, but it feels a little naïve, especially in the set-up.
While other directors have successfully tackled the same milieu, Lowery’s film feels like it’s trying too hard. It lacks the flowing poeticism of Days of Heaven, the hard-scrabble grime of There Will Be Blood and the shocking bursts of violence that punctuate Bonnie and Clyde, a similar film that sports two fully realized characters on the lam. Even No Country for Old Men, in its sparseness, outdoes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Lowery has made a technically proficient film that is beautiful to look at, but that’s really about it. Don’t strain too hard to hear the mumbled dialogue. It’s probably not anything worth hearing anyway.