There is a list of things necessary in most people’s minds as to what makes a film a “Western.” Horses might be on there, as might the 1880s, Monument Valley, maybe a sheriff or two. These are merely visual trappings, the accessories used to doll up what a Western actually is. It’s a feeling more than a look or a sound. Despite being set in modern times, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a Western through and through, of the contemplative kind. It depicts people trying to get on and forget their past, while at the same time they speed steadily towards a confrontation with it.
The film follows Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), an outlaw couple, very much in love, who are on a crime spree across the South. It comes to an end, though, when they’re surrounded by police at Bob’s hideaway in the middle of nowhere. A shootout commences, during which an officer is fatally wounded by Ruth and another is winged. To spare his love any kind of jail, Bob turns himself in and takes the fall for the killing, leaving Ruth to go free. She’s also pregnant, unbeknownst to him, and tries to provide a decent, law-abiding life for her daughter.
Some years later, Bob hears that he has a daughter and makes a daring escape and begins to make his way back to Ruth. She knows he’s coming and is at odds with herself as to whether she wants to see him again or not, especially with the authorities and some very nasty criminals gunning for Bob and the money he’s got hidden somewhere. Ruth’s attention is also split by Patrick, a sheriff’s deputy who has taken a shine to her.
This is a movie that always feels like it’s heading toward an inevitable and violent conclusion. Without feeling particularly dour, it has the sense that nothing good will come from Bob’s escape. Most screenwriting teachers will talk about the “point of no return,” the moment in a script where the rollercoaster is careening down the proverbial drop. Here, it feels like that point of no return happens before the movie starts. Given who Bob is, a single-minded rogue who thinks he’s unstoppable, there’s no chance in hell he’s going to come to his senses, no matter how many people tell him otherwise.
Among the people telling him otherwise is Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the man for whom Bob did a lot of his criminal activities in the past. He has put Ruth and her daughter in a home he owns right next door to his own to keep an eye on them. Having given up the criminal life, Skerritt now owns a pawn shop. He knows he’s past his prime, but protecting those girls gives him a sense of purpose and, as unfettering as Bob is in his desire to see them, Skerritt is just as determined to make sure none of the bad types come a-knockin’ on her door.
Affleck’s performance is really magical. While every other character seems to see that no good can come from the reunion, Bob has no doubt he’s destined to be with Ruth again. He spins yarns about himself and believes his own hype, often referring to himself as “Ol’ Bob Muldoon,” like he’s talking about a legend. He also fully believes his escape is the most talked about thing in the region, like he was, in fact, Clyde Barrow or someone notorious. Even though we’re sure his actions aren’t helpful, we can’t help but like him, and Affleck is terrific at that. He’s so good, he almost convinces us that Bob has done all the things he says.
The central figure in the movie, though, is Ruth. It’s her internal struggle that keeps us invested. She liked being an outlaw and doesn’t like that people, especially Patrick, assume that she’s too nice a girl to do the things she did. There are moments when we see her lighten up when remembering the good ol’ days, and it’s at once welcome and completely sad, as we know she can’t go back to that. The other side of her wants to keep her daughter safe, and for that she has to stay on the straight and narrow, even if it’s eating her up inside. She seems to know that the lives of many different men are going to converge over her, and she doesn’t seem to be able to stop it, or doesn’t want to. Perhaps she’ll just let them sort it out.
Lowery, who’s made a few other indie films before this, does several things of note in the construction of both the story and the film itself. Firstly, his emphasis on letter writing: Bob is constantly writing letters to Ruth, using flowery language befitting someone who fancies himself the erudite rogue. Much time is spent on the words and the penmanship of Bob as he continually expresses his love for Ruth. She, too, is also writing letters to Bob, but never sends them. Some of them tell him to come get her, some say to stay away, but she can’t bring herself to fully express either feeling.
The second thing Lowery does is visual. Along with his cinematographer Bradford Young, Lowery is able to paint with dark reds and browns to give the sensation that the movie is old, even carved out of wood. It’s a visual reminder of the old-timey quality of the people involved. It allows the audience to see these people as timeless, despite the clothes and automobiles that suggest a certain decade. These are all people out of time and struggling to find their place within it.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a very interesting, very somber tale of violence and redemption made by a filmmaker and cast who have passion for the story and the characters. It harkens back to an older age, where legends could exist but have slowly begun to fade away.