Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
Written & Directed by David Lowry
Ruth tells Bob she’s pregnant and he couldn’t be more excited. Bob needs to pull off one more robbery, and they’ll be set, able to escape their small Texas town and start over somewhere else. However, things don’t go as planned; a shoot out ensues with an officer wounded and Bob taken into custody. Ruth is taken in by her father figure Skerritt and raises her daughter as a single mother. Patrick, the officer, wounded in the shoot out, begins coming around to Ruth’s place to help her out and they slowly develop feelings for each other. Meanwhile, Bob escapes prison and starts making his way to Ruth, to take her and their daughter away to a better place.
I’ve previously watched A Ghost Story, also written and directed by David Lowry and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed that film. I can’t say I felt the same emotional depth with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It is a beautiful looking film; rich honey browns lighting bedside tables, soft dark shadows obscuring watching figures, the warm glare of sunlight across Texas prairies. Lowry also collaborates quite well with Daniel Hart’s score, creating moments of palpable tension, the same way Hart created an emotional momentum throughout A Ghost Story.
The biggest problem with this film is the dead weight Casey Affleck’s inflicts the audience with. Affleck has notoriously been a stiff actor who seems physically incapable of conveying one honest emotion. He mumbles his lines through a clenched jaw seemingly unaffected by every significant event in his life. Bob learns he is an expecting father. Bob is taken away from his pregnant girlfriend. Bob finally sees his daughter for the first time. Not once do we see emotions register. I wish I could say this was a choice Affleck made for this particular role, trying to play a stoic protagonist but he does this every damn film he’s in. I get the sense he’s trying to mimic the disaffected qualities Ryan Gosling brings to his characters, but you can see emotion boil to the surface in pictures like Drive and Only God Forgives. Gosling understands how to create layers while Affleck doesn’t get anything.
Counter to Affleck is Ben Foster as Patrick, who is also playing his character quietly, matching the tone of the picture. However, Foster finds depth to the police officer; he discovers places to complicate the relationship between himself and Ruth and plays those complications with a nervous, loving sensitivity. Keith Carradine is also giving a lot more than Affleck, playing a character who is dangerous but muted. They add to the film while Affleck as Bob saps the energy from every scene he’s in.
Some moments and themes reminded me of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, a much better film about Texas outlaws caught up in a dark love story. While Badlands ends with the arrest and separation, Bodies wants to examine the fallout and the damage caused by the thoughtless actions of youth. Ruth is reasonably torn between her feelings for Bob and her new responsibilities as a mother. When news of Bob’s escape reaches her, she is pulled back and forth between wanting to prepare herself to run away with him and feeling the truth of her life, the well being of her daughter bringing her back down to earth. Her story is the most interesting being presented, yet the film wants to balance that with Bob’s pretty cliche and boring tale. There are vague bad guys after Bob, and they keep hunting him. Who cares?
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a perfectly fine character drama, flourished with quiet moments of poetry. It just doesn’t have enough emotional substance to make me feel the tragedy of the characters. The movie also struggles with well-traveled plot beats and definitely won’t surprise the audience. What happens to these characters is precisely what you probably already suspect will happen to them, and I wanted something that surprised me and lingered with me for long after. It didn’t.