I’m sure David Lowery, the director of this elegiac, beautifully framed and filmed movie, didn’t set out to make an homage to Terrence Malick, but in essence that is exactly what he has done.
From the opening shots of dappled sunlight through leaves falling on the heads of two young lovers you know this is going to be a film of moments and spaces rather then relentless action. The lovers are Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck), two small-time felons living in the sleepy backwater of Meridian, Texas. They are hopelessly, foolishly obsessed with each other and seemingly relish their roles as a latter day Bonnie and Clyde.
Bob, in particular, seems to find the notion of being an outlaw incredibly romantic and, in a way, heroic. But one day the police are on their tails and they hole up in a rickety abandoned house and a shoot-out ensues. Ruth injures the local sheriff, Patrick (Ben Foster), but when the pair subsequently surrender, it is Bob who takes responsibility and is sent to jail.
Four years later, Ruth is still living in Meridian and in Bob’s absence she has given birth to their daughter, whom Bob has never seen. The one-time bad girl has turned out to be a wonderfully attentive and loving mother, a state of affairs Skerritt (Keith Carradine) the owner of the local hardware shop, and also Patrick, the sheriff she shot, want to maintain. So when news arrives that Bob has broken out of jail and is making his way across country back to Meridian and his family tensions and emotions run high.
That tension – although never expressed verbally by Ruth – is so palpable in every carefully constructed shot of the film, you find yourself holding your breath waiting for the inevitable collision of the past and present. Although it is set in the 1970s the film has a timeless feel to it and could just as easily be telling a tale from the 1870s; a tale of love and loss and sacrifice and new birth and redemption. This is a film that moves slowly with performances of subtlety and nuance that rewards careful attention to every word said and every glance given.
Like Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven, echoes of which reverberate throughout this movie, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is cinema as a sometimes baffling, but always beautiful, work of art.