No one pays attention to the destruction in the phrase, “Love conquers all.” Most think it means that love is the most important thing, or celebratory. It can be, but to conquer something is dangerous. When love conquers all, there is plenty of collateral damage. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the new dramatic thriller from David Lowery, is about two people who deeply love each other, almost past the point of ruin. Lowery shoots rural Texas with unhurried pleasure and the movie plods along at a similar pace. This unfolds like a cinematic yarn, the most relaxed form of storytelling, which is fine until it’s time to get to the point.
Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are in love. There are also outlaws: after a robbery goes wrong, there’s a long gun battle on the front lawn of Bob’s shack. Ruth is pregnant and there’s no way out, so Bob does the only gentlemanly thing he can: he surrenders to the police, and tells them the robbery was all his idea. This keeps Ruth out of jail, and she’s developed a pleasant existence during Bob’s incarceration. She has a nice, modest house that’s paid for by Skerritt (Keith Carradine), Bob’s mentor and accomplice. Despite only a dim understanding of her father, Ruth’s daughter is lovely. Then she gets some news from Patrick (Ben Foster), a local cop: Bob broke out of prison. Everyone assumes he’s on his way to see her, and they’re right. The ensuing complications are twofold: some bad men want Bob dead, and Patrick’s feelings for Ruth are genuine.
From scene to scene, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is delicate and beautiful. It is comforting to watch a film where the actors and the production team understand the story inside and out, and take their time with confidence. There’s an early scene where the very bad men pay a visit to Skerritt’s store. They know why they’re there, Skerritt knows why they’re there, but none of them say anything. Instead, they dance around what they’re really talking about, and the pauses between lines are passive aggressive in a delicious way. There are flashes of violence, too, and that’s when Lowery draws from classic westerns. The gunfights are awkward and deadly; they’re not about accuracy, but force of will. On the more romantic side of things, Patrick’s courting of Ruth is a master-class in understatement. He never speaks out of turn, makes his feelings clear, and respects Ruth enough to keep his distance. Carradine and Foster are peerless character actors, and their understated work is a highlight.
Ruth and Bob are less sympathetic creatures. We’re not given much context about their relationship – there’s one important scene where cuddle up to each other and whisper sweet nothings about the future – so the lion’s share of their chemistry relies on their time apart. Affleck’s performance strikes the right balance between affection and obsession; Lowery wants us to think Bob’s deluding himself a little bit. Ruth, on other hand, is more complicated because her child drains her future of any whimsy. She does not what she’ll do if/when she sees Bob again, and Rooney projects Ruth’s self-doubt with quiet panic. It’s a subtle, well-observed romance, but it’s only in one gear. There is no suspense as Bob gets closer to Ruth because all the scenes have the same gentle inertia. It’s a misfire on Lowery’s part: he wants Terrence Malick’s sense of wonder, but instead his debut is merely sluggish.