Do you all remember that split screen in 500 Days of Summer where we see the main character’s expectations vs. reality? Well my screening of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was very much like what the main character went through. In my mind, Aint Them Bodies Saints was a thrilling yet poetic film that would put Malick to shame with a lot of meat for gifted actors to chew on. However, in reality, it was a plodding, dimly lit slog of a film that was more style than substance.
The film begins with an 11 minute opening sequence before we hit the title card. Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) are in a relationship that’s complicated by the fact that Bob is a crook. After a robbery goes wrong, they flee along with a friend to a house chased in pursuit by the police. When Ruth shoots a police officer, Bob decides to take the blame and is sentenced to 20 years in prison. The Ain’t Them Bodies Saints title card pops up and we are thrust into the crux of the story. Ruth has slowly gotten her life together, working and taking care of her daughter. Bob breaks out of prison and holes up with a parolee (Nate Parker) unaware of the consequences his actions will have and the growing threat he faces. Meanwhile, Ruth and the police officer she shot (Ben Foster) become closer, complicating things as the movie glides to it’s violent and poetic conclusion.
Rooney Mara gives a great understated performance as Ruth, Bob’s wife and mother to their daughter. She’s wonderfully subdued as a woman waiting for her husband to return who grows more and more unsure about it. Ben Foster is almost unrecognizable in his role as a police officer who is friends with Ruth. WIth this film and Kill Your Darlings, he has certainly turned a corner in his career to working on more quiet roles. He’s fantastic in this film, all coiled intensity mixed with curious infatuation and you can’t help but feel for him every step of the way. Casey Affleck was good, but he’s a casualty of the monologue problem the script has. Nate Parker, often the best thing about films, is utterly wasted in his role as a parolee who is housing Affleck’s character.
There’s a lyrical hypnosis that this film casts on the audience and while David Lowery is a gifted visual director, I sometimes felt that he was going more for how nice this scene could look on a poster as opposed to how it would work within the narrative. He often channels another Texas filmmaker, Terrence Malick, but his desire to be esoteric really doesn’t hold much weight. It’s one thing shoot nature, but quite another to hold the shot of a highway for an extra 10 seconds for no reason. For a film that’s all about the desire to return to a loved one, these types of directorial flourishes really make the film feel slow and plodding. I’ve absolutely nothing wrong with movies wanting to be tone poems, but the lack of urgency in the plot really hindered me from getting invested in the story. It doesn’t help that the script gives many of the characters these long monologues that tend to grind things to a halt.