This second feature film from writer/director David Lowery is a product of the Sundance Institute’s Writing and Producing Labs, a fact which neatly explains the picture’s handful of faults. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels like a concoction composed of DNA from various similar efforts in film history, specifically from the 1970’s, the decade in which the film takes place. The result is a diverting if unoriginal drama. Even lead actress Rooney Mara’s face seems to echo that of other stars, reminding me at different times of Holly Hunter, Winona Ryder and Emily Blunt. That’s not to say her performance is forgettable, however. Quite the opposite. This is the sort of film in which elements like performance and atmosphere make the whole endeavour worth examining up against the light. The atmosphere is self-conscious but effective, heady and woozy as a piece by Terrence Malick. Everything is awash in the bronze sun and brown shadows of the Texas setting, right down to the water with which characters repeatedly wash their hands and faces, as though to illustrate the futility of their efforts to cleanse themselves of former sins. We are constantly thrust into these faces, never allowed to miss the creases on their skin or the fire in their eyes.
The plot, on the other hand, is slender, conducted at a snail’s pace to make it last the ninety-five minute running time. It concerns outlaw couple Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck). They’re not quite Bonnie and Clyde, but a succession of armed robberies soon bring the cops to their door, one of whom Ruth shoots down (but not dead) with her boyfriend’s rifle. Bob quickly proves himself a lover first and a crook second by taking the blame for the shooting and going to prison in Ruth’s stead, granting her freedom to raise their unborn child. Three years down the line, Ruth is a single mother earning an honest keep, the young policeman she once shot (Ben Foster) has taken a shine to her, and Bob is escaped from prison, determined to be reunited with his beloved and the “little girl who needs her daddy”.
Except that she doesn’t. Ruth has come into her own as a parent, no longer a moody girl caught up with a bad man; she is a veritable wolf-mother, shown in a string of tender and unsentimental scenes to be gentle, but fiercely protective of her young daughter. She doesn’t need Bob back, and whether she wants him isn’t entirely clear either, especially when Foster’s sweet Sherriff arrives to give her little girl guitar lessons and absolve Ruth of past crimes. But forgotten crimes don’t necessarily mean forgotten urges, as we see in a surprising and quietly breath-taking scene where a group of boys open fire on Ruth’s house with a small rifle. “Give it here,” she orders, making as if to confiscate the weapon. Instead we watch as she raises the cross-hairs to her eye, aims into the trees and shoots, her subsequent grin the clearest display of joy evident in the whole film.
It’s a testament to the execution of this meagre narrative that I didn’t know how I wanted the film to end, or which, if either, of the men I wanted Ruth to choose. The Sherriff doesn’t believe that she’s a villain, he just sees a beautiful woman with a good heart. But Bob knows something that he doesn’t: that she will always be the girl who wants to have a go with the gun.