There is a simple elegance to writer/director David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints. After letting it ruminate overnight I was hoping that it might come to lend a more powerful or lasting effect on me, but instead what I've come to realize more than anything is that it is little more than an exercise in poetry. Alluding to more than just what is on the surface by allowing those images or certain words to take us back to something more personal or more profound than what we see for on screen. There are times that this works for the film and other times we are left simply wondering what the point of it is that made such a story worth telling. I went into the film knowing little about plot or character and having only seen one trailer a few months ago I'd long forgotten what exactly I was in store for. Needless to say, the film fits very well into that southern gothic genre that has retained good word of mouth lately mainly due to the career renaissance Matthew McConaughey is having that brought us the likes of Killer Joe, Bernie, and Mud. These settings and off-kilter tone mixed with the aesthetics of Winter's Bone and recent Terrence Malick pictures give us what is essentially a movie drenched in style and extremely aware of the time and place it exists in. I make these comparisons not to say that Lowery is ripping these people off, but that he is drawing on some inspirational works and has crafted a well executed film himself that while being just as beautiful if not moreso than some of the aforementioned films it simply doesn't pack as much of an emotional punch. I enjoyed the film, I was interested in it throughout, but I never felt as if I really cared about these people. You could bring up that this might be the fault of the actors which isn't fair as that could have just as much been due to the direction they were given, but everyone is in fine form here. It is one of those cases, and they are the worst kind, where everything seemingly comes together just as it is supposed to and on paper looks completely right yet there's no real soul. It will be hard to argue with some Ain't Them Bodies Saints has no soul, but it doesn't strike that nerve it should have until too late in the film and by that point I didn't care as much as I should and the poignancy had been lost.

Ruth (Rooney Mara) sits with her husband Bob (Casey Affleck) on a hot Texas night.
Set in what looks to be the early 1970's and beginning in the midst of an argument we meet Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) as a young couple who (remember that poetic language the movie speaks in) seem to have many of the same issues as most couples when it comes to dealing in trust, but call themselves loyal and believe that it is true love. There are hints that passion means something of a much deeper connection between these two and so we buy into it. We see how they function with one another when their relationship is at a low point and we watch how those attitudes inform their actions throughout the rest of the film. We learn that Ruth is pregnant and in that moment we watch in that idyllic moment as they plan out their future and see themselves existing peacefully with their child until she grows up and they grow old together. These fantasies are put to bed when, for vague reasons I'm not sure we're ever really supposed to understand, the two of them engage in a gunfight with local law enforcement and Bob comes away arrested saying he was holding Ruth against her will and she was innocent in the matter. Bob goes to jail and Ruth is let go and she goes on to have their daughter, Sylvie, and raise her. A mysterious man by the name of Skerritt (a shining Keith Carradine) provides shelter for Ruth and Sylvie while also seeming to have a monopoly over the small town in Texas where all of this is taking place. It is some four years on from the time Sylvie is born that Bob escapes prison and will no doubt be intent on reuniting with his wife and daughter as he's seemingly written countless letters to Ruth during his incarceration. It is also that during this time a local deputy (Ben Foster) who may or may not know it was Ruth who shot him in the shoulder during the gunfight that sent Bob to jail has developed a kind of affection for the single mother. All of these elements come together to form a kind of moral tale for Bob about the price of his actions, but that final scene as played with voice over from Bob earlier in the film helping to elicit the intended nostalgia and regret of it all is simply too little too late to save what, up until that point, seemed more a procedural than a naturalistic layering of elements that bring these emotions to true light.

To focus on the good is to look directly toward the great photography work on display here as well as the absorbing soundtrack that completely hikes the quality of the film up a whole other level. It is easy to make the Malick comparisons as a good portion of the film is shot during magic hour and it does have the whole southern feel to it akin to the narrative parts of Tree of Life, but giving credit where it's due it does allow itself to have a better eye on its pacing and doesn't as much indulge in itself as Malick's films tend to do and gets around to its point quicker. The issue with this is that the story is so flat we know exactly what points it is going to hit so that, even at only and hour and forty minutes, the film feels like it takes forever to do what we all know it is going to do. This of course brings me back around to the idea that the last moment where it finally began to sink in and I felt a connection with the characters despite not understanding their experiences was a measure that didn't stick around long enough or show up in time for me to look past the conventional story and appreciate it for the numerous positives it has going for it. Granted, I know there will be many a folks who will like to contradict that point by saying that it wasn't necessarily the story being told that we are supposed to be latching onto and putting all of our thoughts and effort into, but rather the dynamics between the characters and how well they are sketched in front of us while never really knowing their motives or their history. This is true, beyond that brief moment at the opening of the film we don't see much of who any of our main characters were or how they became the people they are in the present time. Where this comes in most useful is with both the Foster and Carradine characters. I was never sure if Foster was genuine is his asides to Ruth or if he was simply keeping an eye on she and Sylvie because he knew that Bob wouldn't be able to resist the temptation of reaching out them in some way. I think the conclusion gives us a fine enough indication, but the fact of the matter is that these questions and interactions didn't fill the void the generalized story left open. Those moments should have been the ones to rope us in and make us care about what happened to these people, but it all seemed so inevitable it was hard to do so.

Bob protects Ruth from harm as long as he can despite it being his actions that separate them.
Having said all of that what makes this film more than simply style over substance is the craft that we can recognize in the acting. First and foremost there is Affleck who doesn't get as much screen time as I expected, but is still able with his unique voice and defined features to elicit the mood of Lowery's script in a way that many actors might not have understood. Bob has a line in the film that goes, "All you gotta do is wait for me," and it is delivered with such sincere simplicity that just like Mara's Ruth we buy into how optimistically his character views things. This is echoed in later sentiments when Bob is writing his letters to Ruth from prison and Affleck conveys them in voice over. He at one point says he has no regrets and that what happens is how it is and there is no changing that. This mood helps us to understand how his mind works, but even better it shows us the kind of character Ruth is without Mara having to do any real dirty work. Lucky for Lowery Mara is on a roll as of late and she seems to have no intentions of slowing down as she essentially carries the heavy burden of this film on her shoulders. Who she is, what she represents, her existence is the cause for the actions of all the men around her and though she may not think of it that way (and that's in no way her fault) she certainly understands the scenario she's placed herself in and in many ways wants to be with Bob based purely on the fact he brings that level of simplicity to her life. He takes her to a place where the exterior doesn't matter as long as he can be there, with his family, all will be right with the world. Mara has the biggest arc of the film to contemplate though as she must travel from this naive girl who would follow her man anywhere to a mother who must do what is best to see that her daughter doesn't have to experience the same kind of pain she no doubt consistently suffers. We never see Ruth break down or crack, we see her take the news of Bob in strides and approach what comes next as the logical step. It is a masked performance that would mean so much more if the story had something deeper for her to contend with, but on the surface it is still a moving testament to the tortured and epic love story the film so badly wants to be.

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