Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery
Stars: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster
Motion Picture Rating: R
Runtime: 96 minutes
The inexperienced writer-director David Lowery admitted that he set out to make a “classic film” with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and he certainly gave it a good go. He demonstrates a high level of technical skill and is supported by a strong cast, an effective score and some beautiful cinematography. This is a wonderful looking film that deserves recognition. It does not reach classic status, but so few films actually do.
Bob Muldoon (Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Mara) are lovers and bank robbers in 1970’s rural Texas. Bob takes the fall after a failed getaway, is sent to prison and leaves pregnant Ruth behind. They both suffer their separation deeply with Bob writing endless letters home and Ruth re-focusing her attention on their daughter. In time Ruth strikes up a friendship with local sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Foster) whilst Bob’s mentor Skerritt (David Carradine) watches on. When Bob breaks out of prison the slowly developing lives of those left behind are further entwined and changed for good.
The heart of this film is the passionate relationship between Bob and Ruth. Once apart the story focuses on how they adjust with Ruth learning to fend for herself and to be a mother. As the years go by she realizes the conflict inherent in loving an outlaw and caring for her daughter. Ruth opens up a little with the sheriff, but feels guilty doing so and like the imprisoned Bob she yearns for life as it was before they were caught. Rooney Mara conveys all of that passion, conflict and guilt. It is an excellent performance and it is matched by those of Affleck, Foster, impressive yet again in a supporting role, and Carradine.
The casting of Affleck and Mara is a coup for the writer-director Lowery. Rightly these are two of the hottest actors working today and it is stirring to see them together on screen. At times Rooney’s flawless porcelain skin is at odds with her Texan country girl roots, but ultimately she convinces as the doomed Ruth. Affleck is always good. The direction is as strong as the acting and the whole film is beautifully shot in hues of a late summer haze. It is a slow ride and that will frustrate some viewers, but tension builds and the ending is smart.
It is impossible to watch this film and not to think of the work of Terence Malick. The plot in part resembles Badlands (1973) and the country setting echoes Days of Heaven (1978). The slow, controlled pacing and warmly photographed natural world are central to The Tree of Life (2011). Malick makes ‘classic films’ and Lowery is trying to follow suit. In doing so he has produced an old-fashioned effort with a lot of heart and passages of real beauty. It has its flaws, but the ambition should be applauded and I would describe this as a minimalist triumph.