Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starts like a film should end – with a shoot out. Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are young lovers on the lam. Their hold-up has led to a hold-out, and when the shooting dies down their friend Freddy is dead, Ruth has shot a cop and they are led away in cuffs.
This is not a film about what led up to this moment, but about the aftermath. A visually warm homage to the early 1970s in setting, in look and in tone (Terence Malick‘s Badlands in particular), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a love-lorn story dressed up as violent crime drama.
Bob is imprisoned after taking the fall for felling the policeman. Ruth, exonerated as a naive young girl who knew no better, returns home, gives birth to Bob’s daughter and tries to lose herself in the conformity of domesticity.
Besotted Bob breaks out of jail and heads across country to seek out the girl he loves and the girl he’s never seen. Does he dare return home? And if he does, what will he find there?
How will he react to the uncertain moves being put on Ruth by Patrick (Ben Foster), the very same local cop who took her bullet? Will Bob fall victim to the trio of hitmen put on his trail by an unnamed person whom he has wronged? Will he pass Ruth’s mysterious protector, the resentful Skerritt (an ice-cold Keith Carradine)?
‘Cos the truth is that Bob ain’t much of a tough guy. He comes up short whenever violence confronts him — and it does, often brutally, in the third act. A pussycat dressed up in criminal’s clothing, Bob just wants to go home to be with the women he loves, no matter what the dangers to him or them.
Throughout, Affleck’s mumbling Texan inflection recants the letters of love he sent daily to Ruth. They contain longing and heartbreak, want and need, emotions he can articulate in writing but not in deeds. She read them all, and kept them all; she longs for his return, but worries what would happen to her and their daughter amid the consequent inevitable flight.
Directing, David Lowery gives his characters room to breath and demands the viewer fills in some unexplained gaps in the narrative — are Patrick’s motivations personal or professional? Who is Skerritt? — while Affleck builds on a burgeoning reputation for taciturnity and Mara is both fabulously fragile and stridently strong as the conflicted Ruth.