“Everyday I wake up thinking this is the day I’ll see you”
Reading how writer/director David Lowery set out to make an action film with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints only increased my appreciation for what he actually created. Trying to move away from what he calls the “nearly silent pastoral portrait” constructed with his previous work, he couldn’t help gravitating back towards that same territory as soon as the would-be thrills and excitement were to begin with his anti-hero escaping jail. Those aspects do still exist within this 1970s-set Meridian, TX piece of Americana western, but they’re deliberately absorbed into the background so the romanticism of his characters can breathe fully instead. After all, we aren’t dealing with outlaws in the strictest sense of the word: Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are merely kids getting by so their love may one day become their only concern.
These two lovers are introduced as they walk through a gorgeously shot expanse of nature being over-exposed by the glaring sun shining upon them as it peeks through the trees. They’re arguing as they approach Bradford Young‘s camera in a continuous take about something as innocuous as the pronoun Bob used in conversation to describe a future Ruth hastily infers is without her. But just as he explains later that their love made every argument—no matter the amount of yelling—end with them still by each other’s side against the world, his disarming laugh and her inability to remain hurt has them conclude in a genuine embrace made more passionate by the announcement she’s pregnant. These are the soul mates at the center of this tale, inseparable and enamored with a contagious optimism.
In a manner of seconds, however, they’re transported into the cab of Bob’s truck still smiling and as we’ll later witness talking about life as a family when hope leaves the frame as quickly as it arrived. Bob picks up the gun on the dash, says everything will be all right, and follows their partner-in-crime Freddy (Kentucker Audley) into the night. Lowery then jump cuts abstractly through time to Ruth driving past a diner full of local cops and yet again to the inevitable shootout leaving Freddy dead and policeman Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) shot. With the baby on the way and a fear their every plan may now be over, Bob tells his girlfriend to plead innocence and let him take responsibility so she may provide for their child and reunite later so their dreams may come true.
From here comes an elegiac montage of the aftermath against Daniel Hart‘s melodic and oftentimes hand-clappy score to show Freddy’s father and the ragtag trio’s “boss” Skerritt (Keith Carradine) mourn his son by taking Ruth under his wing, the birth of Sylvie over-powering her mother with love, Wheeler’s recovery to rejoin the force, and Bob’s incarceration for twenty-five years to life. It’s a beautifully composed sequence of events whisking us through multiple emotions in quick succession within a hauntingly stunning aesthetic worthy of the Sundance cinematography prize it won. While in any other film such an expositional roller coaster would be crippled under the weight of rock music and its characters’ indifference to a fate they risked earning, Lowery lets the impending separation and sense of the unknown flourish towards a minimalistic humanity beyond cliché.
Instead comes a heartfelt portrait of a small southern town existing beyond the black and white of right or wrong. Everything you’d assume Bob’s escape four years later would provide happens, but none of it overpowers the sense of longing he and Ruth hold for one another. That’s the crucial underpinning to each action whether his journey back or her trepidation knowing his failure will be the final nail in their love’s coffin. Lowery then injects a palpable sense of danger as an unknown cowboy named Bear (Charles Baker) arrives with two cohorts lying in wait so that Skerritt may understand the full ramifications of Bob’s return on him, these strangers, and the girls caught in the crossfire. Wheeler sees it too, knowing his desire for Bob’s arrest isn’t for revenge but to ensure Ruth and Sylvie remain safe.
That which carefully unfolds next does so with complexity as character motivations become clear and tough decisions are made. It’s weighty drama rendered authentic by the types of performances you’d expect from independent stalwarts like Affleck and Foster—each frame dripping with contemplation in its silent introspection of actors sizing one another and themselves up. Because just as integral as Bob’s race home is Ruth’s acknowledgement of what it will mean in a grander scheme outside of the promises they made to each other. Friends like Sweetie (Nate Parker) do whatever is necessary to let that love survive while others like Skerritt make the tough calls from years of experience to know when enough is enough. No matter the result, though, Lowery ensures we don’t forget what it was that brought them all together.
This is the brilliance of what he’s created: that ability to see through what’s unspoken or unexplained at the love each possesses for the other. Whether Foster’s politely obvious affections towards Mara; her unbreakable connections to both Affleck and Sylvie; his yearning to hold them each in his arms; or Carradine’s—in one of his finest turns—paternal instincts allowing his duty towards them to overcome grief, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints shows our immortality in the quiet moments that endure beyond the unavoidably tragic reality of what’s to come. Everything Ruth and Bob do is for their future and while they naively believed their devotion was worthy of that happy ending, such things are unfortunately the stuff of fairy tales. What they didn’t realize until too late was that their future survived the moment Sylvie was born.
courtesy of IFC Films