September 19, 2013

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Not Bad, Not Saintly

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By: LAURA BOLAND

When asked what the title of his recent film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, means to him, director David Lowery responded, “It means that everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done, has the potential to be a good person.” And that is exactly the premise of the film — a group of decent folks who are trying to be good.

Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) are a young couple in ’70s Texas who have turned to armed robbery to make ends meet.  Early in the film, the doomed lovers are involved in a shootout with the local authorities that leaves one officer wounded and one of the outlaws, Freddy (Kentucker Audley), dead.  Bob is sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, but a pregnant Ruth is let go.  While Ruth is busy settling into suburban life with her new daughter, Sylvie, Bob writes her letters every day about their future together.  One day, after several attempts, Bob escapes from prison and sets off to find Ruth, bringing with him some unsavory remnants of their criminal pasts.

Lowery draws on a wide array of inspirations to create the ethereal backdrop for this modern tale of star-crossed lovers: The men walk around with the gun-totin’ swagger of classic Westerns, there are dusty farms and shady bars that look like they were built during the Great Depression and the characters use the plain speech and plain dress of Little House on the Prairie.  All of these influences have an effect that makes one character’s call for an ambulance feel like an anachronism.  There are some strong resemblances to the work of Terrence Malick as well, particularly and obviously to Badlands, but at this point what vaguely poetic film has not been compared to Malick?

Just as the setting has been unmoored from a specific time and place, the characters are likewise displaced from the rest of society.  The script does little to establish why Bob and Ruth committed their crimes, which are glimpsed only briefly, or the extent of their criminal histories.  When a gang of rough-looking travelers come to town looking for Bob shortly after his escape, we can only guess at their connection with Bob or Freddy’s father, Skerritt (Keith Carradine).

Without the firm footing of history, the characters create themselves through myths.  From the minute we meet Bob, he is spinning yarns about himself and about his love for Ruth.  Lowery has a knack for poetic yet natural dialogue, and Bob’s monologue about his escape from prison and his letters home to Ruth are the most enjoyable scene in the film.  In the letters, Bob lifts his and Ruth’s love up to transcendental heights and believes without doubt that they will be united.  Ruth is much more wary.  She knows what is in the public record and in the letters Bob writes to her, but she also knows that there are powerful secrets that have not been and should not be shared with other people.

For all the myths and tales the characters create for one another, we see little of their inner lives.  Mara and Affleck turn in solid performances, but the script never delves past the surface of the minds of these characters, despite the fact that many of them face important moral dilemmas.  Will Ruth decide to abandon her safe life and run off with Bob again?  Or will she stay, both for the sake of her child and because of her close relationship with Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster)?  We see the Ruth and the people around her contemplate these and other questions, but the decisions they reach are not fully explained, and sometimes they are denied the pleasure of making a decision at all.  It is unsatisfying, to say the least, that the film works so hard to create the perfect mood but does not invest enough in the individuals.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a fine effort at capturing the wistful nostalgia and tragedy that often accompanies Bonnie and Clyde narratives, but is one that will slip quietly out of the minds of the audience as soon as they leave the theatre.

Laura Boland is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at lboland@cornellsun.com.