Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Imprisoned after a shoot-out with the law, an outlaw escapes from prison, desperate to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Lone Star by Alexa Dalby

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

I suspect this may be a film that has different resonances in the UK and the US. It opens in a golden-lit, bare countryside, with no clue as to where or when, until a title tells us “This was in Texas…”. Clearly, we are being told we are about to experience something mythic. A young couple dressed in Dustbowl Depression-style stride angrily, arguing. She reveals she’s pregnant. Cut to when we next see them, holed up in a deserted derelict house in the middle of a gun battle with the law, which ends in the shooting of a sheriff and their surrender and arrest.

Ruth (Rooney Mara, who was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in the American remake) fired the shot, but her husband Bob (Casey Affleck, the younger brother who gained recognition in another Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) takes the rap and ends up with a long prison stretch. Years pass, in which Ruth creates a loving home and a normal life for their daughter as she grows up. But the couple’s love for each other has never died, and Bob escapes from prison to start a desperate trek back home to find the daughter he has never met.

So the film taps into powerful American myths of the West and the outlaw. It’s shot in a Terrence Malick luminous style, wide landscapes and sky heavy with significance, it feels like mix of Days Of Heaven, Badlands and Bonnie And Clyde. And its period is badly realised, somehow indecipherable. Is it ’30s, ’50s, ’70s? Present day? The small-town general store, dark and archaic, and Ruth’s dress are surely pre-war, the attitudes are ’50s, yet the cars (and the moustaches) seem ’70s – maybe the guns as well – and this is what the film’s producers say. But remove the mythic overlay, and the story seems slight. It’s a doomed love affair, conducted mostly by letters to and from prison. For most of the film the couple are separated and continuing their lives far away from the other. Because of this, though their love doesn’t change, the way each of them sees how life could be lived does.

The film’s most unexpected twist is the character of the Sheriff (Ben Foster, to be seen soon in Kill Your Darlings). He’s a decent man, despite first impressions, who quietly infiltrates himself into the domestic life and affections of the loving single mother and her little girl, not in the intrusive or manipulative way you might expect, but with genuine love for them. He was the law man that Ruth shot in the sequence of events that started the tragedy in motion and this provides a complex knot of emotions as loose ends are tied up. She thinks he doesn’t know it was her, but maybe all along he did, and it made no difference. Keith Carradine almost steals the film as Ruth’s next-door neighbour, the storekeeper, a kind of father figure, sitting on his porch with a loaded shotgun in readiness for the mayhem experience tells him will ensue, as a late-entry left-field subplot brings in bounty hunters after Bob’s head, a suitcase full of dollar bills that blow away in the wind and a final showdown that ends with Bob lying bleeding to death in Ruth’s arms on the floor of the home he tried so hard to reach.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is writer/director David Lowery’s second feature after SXSW in 2009, though it seems like a debut film. He has solid editing credits, most recently for Upstream Color. His film has a poetic feel, it’s a fully realised imaginary world, but it is a fictional world that we know mainly from other films. If you have seen them, it could appear derivative. If you haven’t, then it will likely be involving and enjoyable. And coincidentally, Rooney Mara is also to be in an untitled Terrence Malick project currently in post-production – perhaps limbering up for it with her role in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is released on September 6th 2013 in the UK

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