On paper, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the kind of film that I’d be all over. Melding elements of an elegiac, Malick-ian romance with a Western-infused, Coen Brothers-esque crime plot, the ‘Texas-set period film stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as lovers who are separated after a robbery gone wrong. Bob (Affleck), in a decision that will affect their lives for years to come, decides to give himself up to prison so Ruth (Mara) can give birth to and take care of their expectant child. Years later, their child is now grown and Bob has broken out of prison, fiercely determined to reunite with his wife and the child he never knew.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has all the workings of a great film that utilizes the qualities of both of its main influences on its surface: an interesting story, a wistful, melancholic tone, great cast, gorgeous cinematography, and what will likely wind up being the best original score of the year by composer Daniel Hart. So why did I end up feeling so emotionally disconnected from the entire experience, never able to fully give myself up to Lowery’s southern fable?
I can’t quite pinpoint what it was that distanced me from something I feel like I should’ve loved, but there were a few small distractions that may have contributed to this feeling. While the entire cast uniformly ranges from solid to great, Affleck sort of pales in comparison to the rest. His blank, quiet, puppy-dog demeanor — which worked in his favor for films like Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — doesn’t really fit the character he’s portraying, who’s more brooding and filled with a yearning so strong that it eats away at his soul. Thankfully, Mara is excellent as Ruth, while Ben Foster’s policeman Patrick, who becomes romantically entangled with Ruth during Bob’s absence, really steals each scene he appears in, conveying a subtle yet palpable dread and fear for what may come when and if Bob makes his way back home.
Sadly, while this sub-plot is one of the more thought-provoking aspects of the film — whether or not Ruth would be better off with the law-abiding Patrick than with the criminal she fell in love with ages ago — they don’t really explore its implications far enough. It’s treated almost as if it’s forced to sit in the sidelines while the rest of the story plays out. Foster and Mara make it work much better than it really could have, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.
Perhaps the film’s biggest offense may be the utter lack of tension in Bob’s story. As he travels all across the lone star state, I never felt for a second that he was never safe and had to tread his ground carefully, which would’ve further made his journey feel more like an actual journey, both physically and emotionally, as he’d have to deal with the consequences of his actions which led him to that point. There are a few well-executed scenes in which Bob has to slip away from cops, including a rather intense nighttime shootout, but they add little to make up for that particular subplot’s “safeness”.
Overall, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a film I appreciated more than truly enjoyed or engaged with, but boy is there a lot to appreciate in it. As mentioned earlier, the cinematography and production design are impeccable; really transporting the viewer to this fabled, almost fairy tale-esque version of southern Texas. It nails the tone that it wants, and further elevates it with its beautifully composed magic-hour shots. Further enveloping the viewer is Daniel Hart’s breathtaking music, which utilizes fiddles and, believe it or not, hand claps to make one of the most beautiful and unique original scores of the past five years.
Strictly as an audiovisual experience, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is worth viewing, with some strong performances to boot. But I can’t help but itch away at this nagging feeling that it could’ve been somewhat better. When I first saw the film at the LA Film Festival, writer/director Lowery described the film as a cinematic folk song; the kind of story that Bob Dylan would sing about. If that sounds like your bag, then the film is definitely worth seeing, and I feel like I may need to rewatch it to see if I’ll be able to connect with it much better knowing that’s what it was meant to be. But for now, it’s a mixed bag of gorgeous images and sounds trapped in an only partially-developed narrative. Your mileage may vary.