There are waving golden plains and dusty visions of small-town Americana aplenty in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," but what the film doesn't have is the proper resonance and thematic care to pull off its central condemned love story. Exasperating in its disjointed pacing, ceaselessly static tempo, and refusal to provide context and development for its nearly comatose characters, this lethargic art-house drama confuses painterly cinematography for overall cinematic distinctiveness. Writer-director David Lowery's inspirations are easy to guessTerrence Malick's lyrical 1973 crime romance "Badlands," as well as Robert Altman's progressive 1974 western "Thieves Like Us"but unlike those pictures, there doesn't seem to be anything underneath the surface. Or, perhaps, it's all underneath the surface, and that's why the characters come off as such ciphers. Either way, it's an empty vessel of an effort posing as something important and contemplative.
When a robbery they are involved in goes wrong, Texas sweethearts Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are ripped apart. A pregnant Ruth is acquitted of the charges, but Bob is sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, taking the heat for Ruth's wounding of a police officer in a deadly standoff that killed their friend and accomplice Freddy (Kentucker Audley). Some four years pass, with Bob writing to Ruth each day from the slammer and the two of them dreaming of a time when they can be reunited. When Ruth learns that Bob's sixth prison break was the charm, she insists to the police that she doesn't know anything about it. Taking care of precocious daughter Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith), Ruth has almost gotten used to being a single mother when soft-spoken town deputy Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) starts coming around and showing an active interest in her. Meanwhile, Bob very, very slowly edges his way down the country in the hopes of seeing his lost love once more.
"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is a terminally inert meditation on, what? Cuddling with one's own daughter? Driving around in a truck for days with a destination in mind, yet seemingly going nowhere? The dangers of committing armed robbery with your soul mate? Unwilling to explore much of anything, writer-director David Lowery fills his frame with people either mumbling to each other or moseying around while looking forlorn. For a film such as this to work, there must be a core relationship with substance, and that is definitely not Bob and Ruth. Why they've initially turned to a life of crime is anyone's guess. Later, as Bob travels south to find Ruth while she, living in the town of Meridien, Texas, tries to make a good, honest life for Sylvie, the film is just as shady on filling in crucial holes that might have helped to bring vitality and depth to these two figures. Neither appears to have any family. Ruth has been loaned a quaint single-family home from neighbor and shopkeeper Skerritt (Keith Carradine), Freddy's father, but as far as one can tell she has no friends or job to speak of, filling her days with not much of anything. She goes to church with Sylvie. She celebrates the child's birthday. They rescue kittens. Would someone please give them a purpose in their own story? As for Bob, his exploits as an on-the-lam convict are pedestrian, at best. The film is taking place in the 1970s, not the 1870s; why is it taking him so long to reach Ruth?
Earlier in the year, Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder
" was released to divided critical attention. The film was absolutely gorgeous to look at, but Malick inadvertently flirted with self-parody as his narrations grew ever more opaque and the bulk of the running time was dedicated to people rolling around in fields. The finished product was a letdown, but at least Malick had thoughts and ideas on his mind and tried to explore them, albeit cryptically, within his scattered narrative. With "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," the voice-overs are clearer because they leave no room for interpretation or deeper meaning. Instead of being poetic ruminations on life, love and the universe, they're straightforward and factual, glimpses not into the inner workings of the characters' minds but a summary of what they are doing. It is intensely clunky. Rooney Mara (2013's "Side Effects
"), Casey Affleck (2011's "Tower Heist
") and an impressively against-type Ben Foster (2012's "Contraband
") are believable in their roles, but said parts are suffocated by their closed-in, undernourished nature. The story told by "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" lends itself to stirring drama and aching romanticism. In the right hands, with the right script, it might have been a dramatic powerhouse. As helmed by Lowery, the picture and all that it contains is maddeningly apathetic, its pulse a resulting flat line.