Make no mistake; Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is not as ambiguous as its title suggests. While it is indeed a work shrouded in murky atmosphere and high-minded poetry, at its core, David Lowery’s directorial breakthrough remains a classic tale of love, bondage and promises kept. Lowery tells his story with a lens so creatively visionary that it feels as if we’ve never witnessed it before.
The film opens with Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) telling her lover, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck, The Killer Inside Me), that she’s pregnant with his baby. Shortly thereafter, we see the pair of small-town Texas crooks preparing for a robbery — their last as a couple — which culminates in a high-stakes shootout with local police.
In the midst of all the chaos, Ruth shoots an officer, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma), yet it’s Bob who ultimately surrenders, taking the blame in order to spare Ruth and their unborn daughter and promising that they will reunite again. The rest of the film sees Bob on the run after escaping from prison — something Lowery opts not to show.
The fact that Lowery omits this scene — one that would have been the centerpiece of any other run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick — is indicative of the director’s aversion to the expected and cliché. Lowery instead tells the rest of his story through an exceedingly strong cast of actors and Bradford Young’s cinematography, both of which are among the best you’ll see on a big screen this year.
Mara and Affleck turn in award-worthy performances — especially Mara, whose character knows of her lover’s imminent return but must hide their plans from Officer Wheeler, who’s hot on the case (and who, ironically, has no idea Ruth shot him). It’s a role that demands just the right balance of subtlety and depth, and Mara masterfully portrays this highly complex character.
Yet it’s Young’s work that ultimately steals the show. Almost the entire film is draped in shadow; even the daytime shots seem to capture the darkness that looms over its characters. Young’s style has been compared to renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life), the right-hand-man of enigmatic director Terrence Malick (to whom Lowery has also received comparisons), and the beauty of these shots is every bit worthy of these distinctions, as well as the Cinematography Award it won at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
While the story purportedly takes place in the ’70s, they never really say so in the movie. There’s a timeless feel throughout, as if it could have unfolded in any era within the last century, and it’s fitting for a story with such permanence. But it took the impeccable talents of Lowery, Young and their host of actors to pull it off with the level of dexterity and profundity that they did.
Ultimately, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is one of the year’s best films — one that, from its onset to its powerful climax, rewards patience with unfailing romanticism. It’s a triumph in the classical sense, and a startling breakthrough for a director with the heart and resolve of the protagonists in his film.