This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The press notes for most films are pretty standard stuff, heavy on the hype about how much fun the cast had working together, but "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," as the strange title might suggest, is not an ordinary film and the press notes aren't close to ordinary, either. They feature a fascinating and refreshingly frank interview with the film's writer-director, David Lowery, an independent filmmaker based in Texas.
In describing the gestation of this fine new film, about a gun-crazy thief on the lam and the girl who longs for him, he recalls that he had just finished working on a "nearly silent pastoral portrait of children growing up" ("St. Nick”) As a change of pace, he decided to "try something completely different ... an action film."
He says, "I had in mind a thrilling, bare-bones American chase movie, and I figured a guy breaking out of jail would be a pretty good way to kick a story like that off. And it was -- but almost immediately upon his escape, the whole action part began to fall away; as per my wont, I found myself more interested in the aftermath, the repercussions, the spaces in between.
"Also, people die a lot in action films, and every time I tried to write a death scene, even for an extraneous unnamed bad guy in a shootout, I'd feel guilty and start wondering who that person was and what got them to that point. Those misgivings were more interesting to me, so I just started focusing on them."
What Lowery came up with was a pastoral and pensive action film, a character-rich film of few words, relatively few gunshots and many long silences and lonely vistas. The title, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," comes from a vaguely remembered line from a country song, and the movie is a kind of country song too, a rough but lyrical elegy for lost and doomed love, a sad ballad of loneliness and pride. "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is reminiscent of the films of Terence Malick (particularly "Badlands") in several ways, including its refusal to be hurried in its loving gaze. It's a slow, even languid song, but well worth the time spent with it.
The land, the Hill Country of Texas, is a character in the movie, too, with listing old abandoned farm houses seen in the distance across rolling fields of dry brush or withered corn. There are long shots of empty doors and windows in weathered wood barns and houses that will break your heart, and lovely half-lit interiors of mother and baby that evoke old Dutch paintings. Lowery makes good use of the talents of young cinematographer Bradford Young.
The story is simple. Bob (Casey Affleck), an armed robber, and Ruth (Rooney Mara), his companion, get caught in a shootout with the law. Before they surrender, a young deputy (Ben Foster) is wounded, and Bob takes the blame, even though Ruth put the bullet in the man. Bob goes to prison, Ruth is freed, in part perhaps because she is carrying Bob's baby. Bob swears he will escape, and on his fifth try, he succeeds, just in time for the 4th birthday of the daughter he has never seen.
Meanwhile, the deputy, in an old-fashioned way, courts Ruth and befriends her daughter. He is one of several people in the movie who act with uncommon kindness to the single mother. An older man (Keith Carradine) lets Ruth live in a house he owns, and treats her as if he were her uncle.
But Ruth is still in love with Bob, and Bob is obsessed with Ruth. He slowly makes his way toward her, with the law on his trail. Toward the end, three gunmen also come looking for Bob, seeking revenge for a double-cross. Finally, as the tension grows increasingly taut, guns explode and men die. The inevitable happens, but not before we get to know half a dozen people (and a strikingly spare landscape) very well.
The story unfolds with all due deliberation, and some may find "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" to be too slow. I did not. In a season -- and an era -- of movies that move fast and go nowhere, a film that knows where it's going and takes its time getting there is as welcome as a cool drink of water on a hot and vexing day.