“This was in Texas,” reads the title card at the beginning of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It sounds like the start of an old yarn, and the film, an unadorned, sepia-toned mood piece, has an ambling pace to it. As Southern outlaws, the lovers at the center of it invite comparison to a certain infamous duo, but this is more Terrence Malick than “Bonnie and Clyde,” more how-can-our-love-survive? than shoot-’em-up (though there’s some of that too).
It’s set in the past, probably the 1960s or ’70s, judging by the cars. In a story meant to invoke wistfulness and nostalgia, specificity isn’t very important. Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) are young, vivacious, and criminally inclined. We gradually come to understand that Bob has been in trouble with the law most of his life. Ruth seems to have come into it later, but is every bit a willing participant when the two of them and their partner, Freddy (Kentucker Audley), commit the armed robbery that winds up putting Bob in prison.
Bob and Ruth swear their allegiance to one another as he’s sent away, Bob promising to write letters every day in support of her and the child she’s carrying. It isn’t clear what Ruth’s level of devotion to Bob is: she, not he, is the one who has to be a single parent and live in the world. Four and a half years later, when Bob escapes from prison and goes on the lam, Ruth and the child, Sylvie (played by twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith), are still living in the same small, rural town. Ruth tells the police she doesn’t think Bob will come for her. She seems to mean it.
Bob, though, has had no one on his mind but Ruth and Sylvie (whom he’s never seen) the last four years. He’s smart enough not to head directly for home, but make no mistake: he’s comin’ for them. For him it’s an epic journey to reunite a family after a painful separation. But for Ruth, it’s a dilemma. Does she still love Bob? Of course. But is it sensible to go on the run with a fugitive? Or must she leave this old part of her life behind for good? The glimpses we see of their pre-prison life show their relationship to be tempestuous and passionate (the standard for outlaw couples, really), perhaps not destined to last forever anyway.
Adding to her quandary are the attentions of Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), a sheriff’s deputy who adores her and Sylvie and wants to take care of them. Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a local mercantile owner who was an employer and father figure to Bob, Ruth, and Freddy, is likewise protective of her and Sylvie — “the girls,” as he calls them. Bob is ordered to stay away. “You f***** over a lot of people,” Skerritt reminds him.
While there’s some suspense and intrigue concerning Bob’s efforts to stay hidden (a bartender friend, played by Nate Parker, helps him out), this tale of tragic love and doomed romance generally emphasizes tone over story. The details of the plot don’t matter so much as how the characters respond to them. The results are mixed. Whiny-voiced mumbler Casey Affleck is convincing as a man in love, less so as a lifelong criminal, while Rooney Mara is fully immersed in her performance as a tired, haunted woman who has few options. It’s a pleasant change to see the usually insane Ben Foster play an ordinary and humble man.
But the themes and emotions writer-director David Lowery is trying to tap into don’t come across strongly enough to feel universal. Though it has moments of beauty and poignancy, with an authentic setting and naturalistic performances, the film doesn’t draw us into its world as deeply as it needs to. Nonetheless, Lowery clearly has skills and sensitivity (this is his third feature, the first to get any attention) that warrant recognition. Sundance continues to be a laboratory for sharp, intelligent new filmmakers.
B (1 hr., 35 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.