If Bonnie and Clyde survived their final stand-off and attempted to live a life after crime, we would have the basic set-up of writer/director David Lowery‘s subdued, deeply felt Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. But that is just the beginning, as this drama skirts around the major peaks one may find in another film of its kind, instead focusing on the quiet, sublime exchanges.
Opening with Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) strolling through a gorgeous Texas landscape, lit by the setting sun in magic hour, we are immediately privy to the earnest love our two leads share — a vital element of the story to come. In this brief exchange, Guthrie tells Muldoon she is pregnant with their first child, but it’s soon revealed that the couple live a dangerous life of lawbreaking.
A robbery goes bad, but Lowery isn’t interested in the big heist, but rather the bitter consequences of one’s actions. Showing us the moments before their capture, Guthrie and Muldoon engage in a firefight and after the death of their partner Freddy (Kentucker Audley), local police officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) is hit with a non-fatal bullet by Guthrie. Realizing they are at a dead end, Muldoon raises his hands above his head and the duo are swiftly carried off, their last moment together for quite some time spent handcuffed side-by-side.
Only then does Ain’t Them Bodies Saints truly start, as the title card flickers on screen and we jump four years later, with Guthrie and her child intertwined (displayed beautifully in a single shot of the two playfully walking down the street). Muldoon remains in prison, sending letters of his longing affection for his lover, as the stoic Skerritt (Keith Carradine) — seemingly the overseeing cohort of their previous crimes — takes a more substantial role in Guthrie’s life, by providing shelter. Meanwhile, a lonely Wheeler becomes infatuated with Guthrie and her child, attempting to fit the father role that Muldoon can’t play.
Giving away anything more would be egregious (only to note that up-and-comer Nate Parker is finally provided with a movie worthy of his talents), but along with stellar performances from each and every member of this quaint ensemble, it’s newcomer Lowery that is the true star. While comparisons to Terrence Malick will be thrown about, aside from taking advantage magic hour and some Badlands similarities, Lowery is playing with an entirely different bag of tricks.
With touches from No Country For Old Men and even A History of Violence, Lowery and his cinematographer Bradford Young (Pariah) create a slow-burn style that never once wears out his welcome. Calmly gliding the camera around this lived-in, tattered environment during simply exchanges creates an exceptional sense of tension, in addition to the sparse script. Not unlike the aforementioned Coens‘ masterpiece, Lowery is precious regarding every word that comes from our ensemble — everything is at stake here, whether it is the potential of a forbidden romance or the life of a minor supporting character.
In a post-screening Q&A, Lowery described the captivating title as being conjured from a made-up folk song, perfectly tying in with themes he wanted to evoke. This notion couldn’t be more apt, as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a moving, lyrical work, accentuated by Daniel Hart‘s string-heavy score (complete with unorthodox, but fitting handclaps). After a handful of low-budget features, Saints marks a bona fide break-out for Lowery, a filmmaker who cares as much about the world he creates as the people that inhabit it. The characters of this tragic small-town drama must learn to live with their mistakes and despite how ill-advised their decisions may be, each step is as enthralling as the last.