By Akshay Seth, Daily B-Side Editor
Published September 6, 2013
In the moments before “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” thrusts us into elegiac generalizations of mid-to-late 20th-century Texas, it throws up a title card reading, “This Was In Texas.” I guess writer-director David Lowery (“Pioneer” ... this is NOT the guitarist) just wanted to be sure we knew. Or maybe he was giving us a peek at the sense of irrevocability that this film spends 90 minutes convincingly fantasizing. Who knows? What we get is a touching, if labored, examination of themes older than the Alamo itself: sacrifice, revenge, love and family.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints
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Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck, “Gone Baby Gone”) is only a shell of himself when he’s not with his wife. As is evident in most of the film’s unnecessary voice-over work, lil’ Affleck’s all hot and heavy for Ruth (Rooney Mara, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”), the type of Texan beauty who finds hidden pleasure in firing airsoft rifles at little kids. But this is no ordinary love — rather, it’s so deep that Bob takes the rap when Ruth plugs an archetypal Texan police officer (Ben Foster, “The Messenger”) using an archetypal Texan six-shooter.
From that ill-fated shootout, Lowery guides us through an all-too-recognizable turn of events involving 25-to-life, prison escape, gag-inducing love letters and, of course, more shootouts. But when all’s said and done, when the 10-gallon hats are on the ground, the been-there-done-that nature of what Lowery has concocted never really matters. This film, more so than most movies released in the past year, is about setting a mood — a mood so anchored in solemnity that we’re left wondering how the hell anyone in Texas ever smiles.
Lowery plays up the idea of star-crossed lovers separated by circumstance, but he takes special care to do so only through Bob. In many of the scenes in which Affleck is alone and separate from Ruth, Lowery only shows us half his face, one side washed in darkness to denote the piecemeal nature of existence without his baby mama. And in all honesty, piecemeal is an understatement. I don’t think Affleck has a single line anywhere in this film that doesn’t have to do with Ruth.
It’s understandable when one considers he’s given up whatever life he had for her, but what we’re meant to see in his desperate letters is an underlying assumption that Ruth will wait for him, no matter how long that wait may be. If not for love, then for the sake of their daughter. The weight of Bob’s sacrifice is painted on everything within view — the faces of old acquaintances, the way everyone talks to Ruth and, to some degree, even in the staid palette cinematographer Bradford Young (“Restless City”) employs.
Ruth, on the other hand, is one of the few characters in Lowery’s world that isn’t still stuck in the past. Yes, she’s classically underwritten and underdeveloped along the lines of most heroines in anything remotely related to a western, but sadly, that’s to be expected. What sets her apart in the context of this film is a willingness to give up and move on. She still cares for Bob, but idealized concepts of love evaporate in the face of raising a child alone.
And when Bob makes contact after his escape, Lowery’s quick to wrap us in a state of heightened reality that spotlights the crumbling relationship. It’s a frenetic 20 minutes, punctuated by spurts of violence that only reinforce the somberness of what Lowery has constructed. Eventually, the implied gravity hiding behind every corner of this movie becomes its most glaring flaw.
Though most of the dialogue is meant to be a terse meditation on the past, the movie marches forward without ever drawing depth out of what has happened. The film never gives us an opportunity to suspect what’s going to happen at the next turn, so the one-note nature of being “sucked in by love” feels off-puttingly surface without context. And ultimately, the supposition that the whole ordeal has to be grim is annoying, plain and simple.