Apart from the horrible (and hard to remember) title, I found little to dislike in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a newish release starring Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Rooney Mara. Released in theaters and featured in film festivals during 2013, the movie was only recently released on DVD.
Set in Texas during an indeterminate year in the 1960’s or 70’s, the movie begins with Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) engaged in an undisclosed crime. Amid a shoot out with the local police force, an officer is wounded and though Guthrie fired the shot, Muldoon takes the blame. Bob is sent to prison while Ruth remains in town and soon gives birth to the couple’s baby girl named Sylvia. Years later, Muldoon escapes from prison in an effort to be reunited with Ruth and the daughter he has never met. Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), the officer whose injury sent Muldoon to prison, takes an interest in Ruth and her daughter while tracking down Muldoon’s whereabouts post-prison break.
The film primarily captures Bob Muldoon’s attempts to evade the law and return to his family, but it’s also a wildly romantic and poetic drama given the way in which his love for Ruth overwhelmingly motivates everything Bob does. Past crimes and relationships with other community members are alluded to without receiving much back story. These minor plot points only serve to move the film forward so we really don’t learn much about Bob and Ruth as characters apart from their devotion to one another. But it’s the austerity of the film that I truly appreciated, a stark simplicity reflected not only in the plot and character development (which might sound like a bad thing but actually worked well in this case) but also in an artistic sense too.
It was a gorgeous film on so many levels, from the fantastic score to the uniquely dark cinematography. I was completely smitten by the score, a beautiful mix of strings and percussive sounds that invoked suspense but felt very natural given the film’s austere Texan setting. The look of the film was equally suspenseful, as many scenes were cast in a reddish light or otherwise haloed in near-total darkness. But this wasn’t the sort of crime drama that exercises tension in an eerie or creepy way. If anything, there was a sense of uncertainty and expectancy throughout the entire movie.
I was initially drawn to the movie because of its cast, being a fan of Affleck and Foster. This was the first film in which I saw Mara and though all the performances were remarkable, I found her performance to be especially impressive. For any Breaking Bad fans, Charles Parker, who plays Skinny Pete on the AMC show, also has a small part in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which was a pleasant surprise. In the hands of lesser actors, the movie might have felt redundant or dull. These three were expertly cast, creating a rather compelling drama that is deserving of much more attention than it ever received. If you can get your hands on a copy of it, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a remarkably well-acted treat to the senses for film lovers.