It took me a few minutes to figure out exactly when Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is set. From the shabby, rustic clothing to the dry-dirt brown of the surroundings I was thinking 1870s, but then the first cars showed up and it was clear that I was guessing about 100 years too early. It’s more than the setting that’s evocative of the 1970s, as writer/director David Lowery has made a movie that’s of a piece with similar flicks from the Me decade (Malick’s Badlands most prominently). Those ’70s films are now considered classics, and Saints is about their equal, making it one of the biggest cinematic surprises of the year.
The film opens with a girl named Ruth (Rooney Mara) hoofing it down a dirt road with her husband Bob (Casey Affleck) in pursuit. She's heard he's striking out on his own. Is he going to leave her? No, he assures her, he’s not going anywhere. The exchange is tense, but Ruth relaxes enough to tell Bob that she is pregnant.
Jump to the couple sitting in a pickup truck, Bob whispering to his unborn child through Ruth’s not-yet-plump belly. They sit waiting in the dark when a man appears, gives them a look and heads around a corner. Bob grabs his gun and walks into the night, off to commit a robbery that will soon land both of them in an armed standoff with police. In the firefight Ruth shoots one of the cops (Ben Foster), but no one can tell where the bullet came from. Rather than go out Bonnie-and-Clyde style, Bob surrenders and takes the fall so that Ruth can raise their child. Just wait for me, he tells her. She says she will.
Four years later Ruth is raising young Sylvie (played by Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) in Meridian, Texas and friendly with the police officer she shot (though he has no idea she was the shooter). Then Bob busts out of jail. Will he come for his wife and child? It would be a stupid idea, seeing as the local cops are on the lookout, as are a group of thugs seeking payback for money Bob stole. Does Ruth even still want him to come back? What kind of life could they give their young daughter as fugitives?
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a mostly quiet movie, full of evocative photography by cinematographer Bradford Young. It’s pensive, with long scenes of characters talking in hushed tones about tragic pasts and murky futures. That said, the editing by Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo is terrific, and it keeps the action moving and the tension building. As Bob gets closer to Ruth and Sylvie, the danger ratchets up as well, and the viewer is torn, wanting this guy to see his daughter while knowing that he can only bring her pain.
So this is an accomplished production that establishes Lowery as a filmmaker to watch, but all that technique would be useless without a compelling story and performances to match. Both Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck deliver the goods, creating a believable relationship in just a few short scenes, which deepens the tragedy of their doomed romance in the second half of the film.
Mara, in particular, projects an interesting mix of traits (she’s a mother with an outlaw lurking underneath) that makes Ruth fascinating. But it’s Ben Foster who elevates the film to another level. His scenes with Mara late in the movie are just terrific.
An IFC Films production, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the type of movie that will garner a bevy of Independent Spirit Award nominations before being largely ignored by the Academy. It’s going to get a quick run locally before being sucked into the bottomless pit of VOD and online streaming. See it on the big screen while you can. It would be a shame to miss one of the best movies of the year.