David Lowery has created a classic within Americana cinema. After first viewing, it’s simple to think you’ve seen this film once before. The comparability of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) to that of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) is more than apparent. Not just due to the storyline being about two young rebellious lovers, but also the use of cinematography and the amount of voiceovers to display a character’s emotions. However, after further review, Lowery is able to supply his own voice and ensure that the story remains fresh and original.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ storytelling relies heavily on the use of memories, space, and mumbles from behind mustaches to resonate a story of heartbreak, life, and outlaws which only the Texan landscape can properly provide. Bob Mulddon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are two passionate juveniles set on living their lives together, no matter the cost. Bob (a small-time crook) and Ruth (recently realizing she is pregnant) immerse themselves in the blissful blindness of young love. Due to a careless mistake by Ruth after a robbery gone wrong, Bob takes the fall for the crime and is given a 25-year prison sentence. As the two are whisked away in a heartbreaking embrace, Bob promises to return to Ruth and to meet their unborn daughter.
As years rolled through their small Texas town, Bob always tried his best to make his promise turn into fruition. Time and time again, his escapes are foiled. But, with true determination, he finally escapes prison, set on starting a new life with Ruth and their baby girl. Ruth, meanwhile, is at a crossroads in her life. Her rebellious past and responsible future have converged. Does she continue to relish in her rebellious past waiting for Bob or does she look for the best possible outcomes for her daughter? As Ruth realizes she is no longer that foolish young woman, she receives word that Bob is coming for her.
The story ultimately evolves into Bob’s ornery determination and Ruth’s decision whether or not to assist in Bob’s capture. Their story and dilemmas provides enough juicy twists and turns, but what pushes the tale to higher levels are the supporting characters. A sheriff (Ben Foster) who has watched Ruth become a mature woman and feels himself a qualified suitor, as does the protective neighbor (Keith Carradine) who has taken Ruth and her daughter in as family. Throw in a couple unfamiliar faces also looking for Bob and asking questions around town, an explosive scenario festers just as Bob makes it into town.
The film resonates with the voice as distinct as the director, David Lowery, and it wasn’t until after my viewing that I realized I’ve previously seen his last piece of work, St. Nick (2009), as it made its way through the film festival circuit. St. Nick told a meditative story about a young runaway brother and sister as they wander the Texas landscape before they try and settle in a small Texan town. There is a lot in common with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The storyline in St. Nick was broad and the dialogue was sparse, but what resonated through both projects were the gorgeous scenery, pinpoint editing, and the use of subtlety to tell the story.
What I appreciated most about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was the delicate balance Lowery gave to the different periods in the character’s lives. The regular flashbacks always provided a purpose that would shift the story or provide a different perspective. Yet, the most powerful creation Lowery was able to conjure was the feeling that all characters truly loved Ruth and they would do anything to ensure her safety. For that, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is worth escaping to Texas for.