Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, one of the year’s best films, opens with a demonstration of how this central couple functions. Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) is walking away from her husband to head to her mother’s home, which is 15 miles away. She doesn’t care how long it’ll take, she just can’t stand the thought of being near Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) any longer. Sun drenches the actors as they wear homely clothing, and their heads move in and out of the frame as they bicker. She asks if he’ll leave her, and he laughs that off; she becomes aggravated, but he tells her he’d never leave her and that he loves her. She’s still unforgiving, and drops a bomb that she’s pregnant. This makes him happy, and he refers to at as “theirs.” She smiles. It’s a brief, quiet scene, but it sets up these characters masterfully. Director David Lowery executes this all in one shot, a brilliant look into how doomed these lovers are.
Heavily influenced by works like Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, Lowery focuses on this young couple in turmoil with Bob being an outlaw who gets taken away after a shootout. The film jumps to after Ruth’s labor, and we see the kid grow up to be almost 4. Bob escapes from prison, talking about how he just walked out; in reality, though, he escaped from a vehicle that was transporting him. Bob’s a suave talker, and he has a calm demeanor even in the face of danger. Affleck acts with a subtlety that comes with every great performance, and Mara matches him. Ruth’s given an innocence that resonates profoundly: here’s a girl who loves her husband dearly, reads his heartfelt letters almost every day, but gives up on him and falls for a sheriff (Ben Foster) when he’s there for her when Bob isn’t. She’s raised a child on her own, kissing her and often singing to her. The film’s full of tender scenes evoking emotional cinema from the ’70s.
Lowery edited another great film from earlier this year, Upstream Color. He demonstrates that he’s one of the best emerging talents today with beautiful imagery and an understanding of how to make simple romance poetic. This is a gorgeous feature, capturing the essence of these characters and their love. He’s so concerned with tone and feeling that very often words can’t do the trick. There’s something about juxtaposing a character talking calmly or lovingly as we see nature or characters simply doing actions; it’s an observational, almost God-like presence he creates. It reminded me of Terrence Malick’s best evocations of romance. As we see the way this romance will play out, the tragedy in it all, Lowery reminds us: Bob is a romantic, a man who dreams of living an old life with the woman he loves. When we understand the pain in what he’s saying, in that he won’t realize his dream, it’s a tragedy.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)