Set somewhere between the Great Depression and seventies recession in rural Texas, where time hasn’t stopped so much as rusted to a crawl, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints plays like the cinematic answer to an outlaw folk song.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play lovers Ruth and Bob, young adults who grew up fast under the watch of a dubious father figure (Keith Carradine) and ended up as small-time hold-up cowboys with a pick-up in place of a horse. Their world is sketched in with impressionistic snapshots, a mix of romantic hope and a doomed trajectory that ends in a shoot-out in an abandoned shack that looks like it’s been standing since the end of the old west, a prison term for Bob, and Ruth raising their daughter as a single mother, looked after by Skerrit (the shady but paternal retired outlaw played by Carradine) and looked in on by the lovesick policeman (Ben Foster) wounded in the shoot-out. He may or may not know the truth about who really pulled the trigger but he nonetheless still moons over Ruth and dotes on her daughter. It’s a delicate equilibrium that threatens to teeter over when Bob escapes lockup, sneaking back into home territory but staying on the outskirts. Because if there’s one thing law enforcement knows, it’s that Ruth means more to him than life itself. He’s written her every day he’s been in prison.
Ruth and Bob are no Bonnie and Clyde–they aren’t ruthless criminals as much as kids born to the outlaw way of life in a culture without many alternatives–and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints isn’t about heists and crime sprees. It’s a character piece about the foolish things people do for love, directed from a script that plays as if all the exposition has been edited out.