Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints
PLOT: An escaped convict travels to his old hometown to be reunited with his ex-girlfriend and their child, but cops and bounty hunters aim to keep that from happening.
REVIEW: AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS is a slow, steady tale of a decent man who has done some bad things trying to find his woman, who in turn may be falling for another man. The stuff of country-western songs, to be sure, but director David Lowery comes from the Terrence Malick school of quiet pauses, serene countrysides, square-jawed outlaws and maternal southern women. The film is utterly serious, romantic and lyrical, anchored by a splendid cast and the director's own intense loyalty to tragic cowboy ballads.
"This was in Texas" is how the movie, set in the 70s, fittingly begins, and soon drops us into an intense shootout between cops and criminals, led by Bob (Casey Affleck) and his pregnant girlfriend, Ruth (Rooney Mara). One of their own is dropped, but Ruth wounds lawman Patrick (Ben Foster) before the two of them are hauled off. Bob eventually heads to jail, while Ruth is let go under the presumption that she was just an unwilling accomplice.
Cut to several years later: Ruth has had her baby and lives a simple life under the fatherly eye of her neighbor Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who we eventually learn acts as something of a low-rate crime boss in the town. Patrick, still under the impression that he was shot by Bob and not Ruth, persistently, but kindly, makes his interest in the woman clear, but Ruth is content to keep to herself and raise her child. The relative placidity of this small-town drama is interrupted with the news that Bob - having attempted to do so many times before - has finally broken out of jail. Ruth is convinced that he won't try to come for her, but Patrick and the rest of the police department aren't so sure.
Eventually, Bob turns up on the outskirts of town, seeking shelter with former associate "Sweetie" (Nate Parker) as well as counsel from his old boss Skeritt. Bob is intent on finding Ruth and his child and whisking them away, but that plan may not be so easily accomplished with Patrick on his scent - not to mention the three shady bounty hunters who also ominously arrive in town looking for the escaped convict.
Lowery's visual style is spare and beautiful,he doesn't clutter things up with too much dialogue, and every scene is aided by a great score by Daniel Hart that aides the film's dreamy quality. This solemn ambience doesn't divert from the considerable tension Lowery gradually builds, however. Not just from the inevitable reunion between Bob and Ruth, but the evolving friendship between Ruth and Patrick, as well as the foreboding presence of the men lurking in the background, waiting to snatch Bob up.
AINT THEM BODIES SAINTS will be a frustrating experience for all but the most patient of viewers. It doesn't provide much action, some of its characters' relationships and backstories are left deliberately unclear, and it avoids the soap opera-y moments that a more conventional film would go after like a dog to a bone. Lowery dodges the payoffs and easy answers in an effort to deliver a mood piece more interested in the unspoken tensions of its characters and landscape. Yet it never comes across as pretentious or dull; Lowery is a natural at creating an atmosphere that is both stark and welcoming.
What can't be denied, even by those who aren't drawn into SAINTS' world, is that the performances all around are immaculate. Affleck has certainly carved out a surprising niche for himself as a believable tough guy, and here he makes for an extremely strong, sympathetic anti-hero. Mara too is never going to be anything but a forceful presence on screen, and while she sometimes reads as a bit "cold," she gives herself over to a nurturing and tender character. Ben Foster has also rarely been so likable, his perpetually boyish face finally seems a bit more grownup (maybe it's the mustache) and reassuring, a classic good guy in field of uncertainty.