Don’t be fooled by all the praise for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, writer-director David Lowery’s tone piece and homage to similar tone pieces. This tale of doomed criminals in love set in early 1970s Texas (and helpfully explained via title card, “This was in Texas,” as if there’s any doubt given what follows) is devoid of new ideas, themes or a story. But it looks pretty, so why not get all tangled up in it anyway?
That last sentence was sarcasm, but even the worst movies can have good aspects. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is only dull, not terrible, and it has some strong performances wrapped up in its moody, understated-but-really-overstated swagger. Ben Foster, who is becoming the best thing in every movie in which he appears, is quiet and compassionate Texas sheriff Patrick Wheeler (which was Ward Bond’s character name in Rio Bravo, but don’t expect any Howard Hawks-like filmmaking here). Keith Carradine is excellent as a menacing and laconic stand-in father for Casey Affleck’s Bob, who, like it or not, sort of does what Casey Affleck does.
Then there’s Rooney Mara, whose appeal dissipates with each new film. Maybe it’s her character here, Ruth, who is little more than window dressing despite ample screen time and the contributor to one big element of the story.
That story—which doesn’t matter, because Lowery forgot to include it—follows a familiar trope. Young lovers, ill suited for each other, do something stupid and spend the rest of the movie paying the price. In this case, Bob and his partner commit a crime and take cover in an abandoned house. Ruth is with them, and she shoots and wounds Wheeler in a stand off. Bob takes the rap and is sent to prison.
Ruth gives birth to Bob’s daughter, Sylvie, and Bob, because he’s saddled with Lowery’s unimaginative vision, escapes prison to come back home, find Ruth, and take the family away somewhere with some money he’s hidden. For the rest of the movie, we wait for bad things to happen, because that’s what happens in movies like this.
Along the way there are reprieves from the waiting game. Nate Parker pops up as Sweetie, a bar owner and longtime friend of Bob’s whose calm demeanor and knowing laid-backness is a welcome respite from Mara’s darting eyes and Affleck’s mumbled drawl. Carradine provides welcome power in a movie that desperately needs it.
And to be clear, the waiting game is not suspenseful and does not raise the hackles. Every move is telegraphed moments—or even scenes—before it happens. There’s a George Carlin bit from his 1968 debut album, Take Offs and Put Ons, in which he describes his love of cowboy and Indian movies: You know there’s going to be a big attack because you can see the Native Americans standing on the hill, and for 90 minutes, we watch the cowboys prepare. Then “YEEAHH!” And it’s over.
That’s what happens here, except without the “YEEAHH!” Viewers who haven’t seen Terrence Malick’s Badlands or Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde may be intrigued. Others beware. Lowery spent all his time creating beautiful images with cinematographer Bradford Young, and let Bob and Ruth fend for themselves. Maybe that’s why they’re such a couple of dopes.
Luckily, Young’s images are gorgeous. The setting sun in the movie’s opening scene is just a preview, and Young is just as adept with night photography as he is in the day.
That brings me to Foster, who plays the “Yes, ma’am/No, ma’am” Wheeler with a perfection that makes all the other performances seem ironic in a movie where everyone is actually playing it straight. Is that praise, though, that he’s so good he makes everyone else seem bad?
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS
Written and directed by Davis Lowery
With Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster