The spirit of Malick is evoked in this tender western starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.
An aching, elegiac love song that immediately calls to mind Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven, the third feature-lengther from editor-turned-writer/director David Lowery is a valentine to a golden age of American cinema. It tells the story of two starcrossed lovers whose uncompromising commitment to one another fuels an intense and destructive romance that feels ripped from the pages of some great-lost novel.
Set in Texas Hill Country some time in the early 1970s, we meet impetuous outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck in full Robert Ford mode — scheming, softly-spoken, often found lurking in the shadows) and his deceptively meek wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) planning their future together while attempting to stay on the right side of the law.
Bob and Ruth may look and act the part but they’re no regular Bonnie and Clyde. Theirs may be a bittersweet portrait of doomed companionship, but it’s one that is ultimately defined by the physical distance between them. Fatefully it’s not long before they’re torn from each other’s arms, their trail of petty crime coming to a head in a spray of bullets at Bob’s father’s abandoned farmhouse where, after being cornered by police, Bob is forced to turn himself in, proceeding to take the fall for Ruth for the non-fatal shooting of one of the arresting officers.
Years pass. From the inside Bob writes long letters home promising that he will one day make it out and back to Ruth and the young daughter he has never met. All Ruth can do is sit and count the days, secure in the knowledge that Bob is a man of his word. Increasingly, however, Ruth finds herself becoming receptive to the neighbourly advances of local sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), whom having recovered from the injury he sustained in aiding Bob’s capture has become obsessed both with keeping him behind bars and bribing his way into Ruth’s life with kindness and compassion.
When Bob breaks out at the sixth attempt Patrick shows his true colours and a painful realisation quickly sinks in — though he may be able to keep his head low for now, Bob must eventually face up to the hard truth that his freedom and being with his family are not mutually exclusive.
Wearing its influences on its sleeve but never feeling stale or derivative, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an immaculate piece of storytelling that boasts serious talent whichever way you look. Special mention must go to Bradford Young’s gorgeous sun-bleached cinematography, which coupled with Daniel Hart’s ubiquitous score of nervy, tiptoeing strings and soft handclaps gives the film a dream-like quality.
Indeed, as the film reaches its exquisitely understated crescendo you begin to wonder whether Bob and Ruth might actually have been killed during the shootout at the old farmhouse, and what just followed was in fact their dying fantasy. Perhaps it’s just easier that way.
Impressive cast, relatively unproven director.
With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints David Lowery has announced himself as a serious talent.
Not quite the new American classic it strives to be, but one you’ll want to revisit.