Writer/director David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a jumble of promising and troubling elements. Set in 1970s Meridian, Texas, the saga of Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and her escaped con lover Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) takes on a mini epic quality through its look and multiple sympathetic characters. More threatening than the law and a vengeance-minded trio, however, are questionable technical choices that hamstring otherwise competent storytelling. One core issue in particular nearly renders key stretches (including the finale) useless, yet the key players manage to convey enough information to keep the film together.
While an opening argument between Ruth and Bob reveals plenty about the couple in a matter of minutes, Lowery quickly gets himself into trouble introducing their grand drama. Careful set-up to a crime gives way to awkward edits that skip to a shootout between the outlaws and local law enforcement. In no time, Bob takes the fall for Ruth’s shooting of sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) and, though four years pass, escapes from prison nearly as soon as he gets in. The quick progression certainly puts an emphasis on the pair’s relationship and deepens the emotional impact of Bob’s risky quest for reconciliation, but the occasional pacing hiccups feel lazy beside the film’s general narrative and visual focus.
Lensed by Bradford Young (Pariah), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints‘ imagery doesn’t quite live up to its Malickian comparisons, though the film’s ambitions aren’t exactly of Tree of Life caliber. Lowery is interested in a more straightforward tale, one that explores a complex situation through readings of hand-written letters and ever-growing suspense. Pursued by a small bloodthirsty gang, a sudden pair of abnormally bright headlights in Bob’s rearview forms a menacing sight while efforts from a recovered Patrick both job-related and otherwise keep the fugitive on his toes. The kind lawman’s special interest in Ruth and Sylvie, the daughter Bob has yet to meet, may pose the greatest challenge of all, not just to Bob but to “the other man” as well, and makes for a thoroughly compelling arc.
Accompanied by Daniel Hart’s excellent, clap-heavy score, the talented core trio deliver fine performances…at least when their dialogue is discernible. Affleck and Mara are often difficult to understand through their exaggerated Texan accents, and at times fellow New Englander Foster is as well. Fortunately, actions here do speak louder than words, though there’s a sense that worthwhile details are lost in the process. (Perhaps Ain’t Them Sound Guys Asleep on the Job would have been a more appropriate title.) More audible turns by Keith Carradine and Nate Parker pick up some of the slack, but with too many moments hitting at half speed, the film unnecessarily limits its great potential.
Rated R for some violence.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.