Beautiful. Brutal. Mesmerizing. Those are the words that first come to mind upon reflection of writer-director David Lowery’s film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a film whose story, acting, score, and photography rest at the front of my brain better than any other film I’ve seen this year.
Starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints tells the story of Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Affleck), American outlaws and smitten lovers not entirely unlike Bonnie and Clyde. But when Ruth and Bob are cornered in their house by police and the situation grows dire, Ruth takes a shot and wounds a police officer.
Bob suggests they surrender, and they do — but Bob instead takes blame, Ruth pregnant with the couple’s soon-to-be daughter. He promises that when he gets out, released or escaped, he will find them: at its most boiled down, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the story of Bob’s journey home to his two beautiful, beloved girls.
Compared unendingly to the films of one Terrence Malick, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in some ways earns those remarks — the gorgeous shots of nature, explorations of what it means to live in a harsh world, flashback scenes that shift the narrative — but I find the film superior and far more beautiful, alluring, and honest than anything Malick has ever done. And for all the themes it explores, Lowery’s film is a much more tight and cohesive film than I would have expected.
But please, let’s put these comparisons to rest; as the director’s breakout film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints proves that the man behind the camera is a singular creative voice, an individual filmmaker with unique and compelling stories to tell. The talent on showcase in this film is proof the director knows what he is doing.
It is hard for me to think about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints without pondering its brutal and haunting yet utterly beautiful ending. Ruth and Bob’s story, one of love and compassion, trust and hope, was fated from the very beginning of the film. Bob would get released — or in this case, escape — and he would make his way back to Ruth and their daughter. Now, keep in mind that this film takes place before cell phones and GPS. It’s of a time, the 1970s, when people knew how to get places on instinct and survival skills. Direction was key, as was knowledge of your whereabouts.
Affleck plays the ever-resourceful Bob, his quiet, hollow speaking voice a perfect fit for an outlaw looking to stay below police radar. Bob treks his way across the countryside, through marsh and rivers and woods and fields, to track down his girls. He won’t give up until he sees them, and I will tell you, at the end of the film, he does. But as anyone could have guessed, it’s not all flowers and smiles when he arrives, despite the illusion Lowery crafts of the American south (the film takes place in Texas) through picture-perfect cinematography.
Mara is just as affecting as spared outlaw Ruth, a woman left to raise her daughter alone and to reflect on the past, each day as she cares for her daughter, each night as the two lay down for bed. At one point, she claims she has hardly slept in four years, her conscience riddled with guilt, mind filled with thoughts of what her life should have been.
Ben Foster is terrific as a police officer watching out for Ruth and her daughter Sylvie, ensuring they remain safe while also keeping his eyes open for Bob’s return. Additionally, Nate Parker serves as one of Bob’s closest friends and someone willing to hide the prison escapee. I’ve never seen Parker on screen before, but his presence is staggering in the screen time he gets. Keith Carradine stands out as well.
Now before I close, it’s a necessity that I mention the film’s score here, because once you see this film, that music, the combination of long string notes and hands clapping, is going to be stuck in your head. The music fits so well with the rest of what you see and hear on screen, it intermixes with everything to create an astonishing atmosphere, drawing you nearer to the characters, the setting, and the story. If nothing else, the music is simply arresting.
Poetic both narratively and visually, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is far and away one of the most memorable films this year, a hauntingly beautiful story about love, motherhood, and doing whatever it takes to be with the ones you care most about. Kudos, David Lowery, kudos.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Grade: ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Runtime: 96 minutes