Ethereal light streaks through the swaying trees of Texas Hill Country in the opening shots of David Lowery’s drama, illuminating the mythic space in which doomed lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) share precious moments together before they’re separated by the law and fate. The pair are as tender in love as they are dangerous with guns, their magnetism the driving force behind a scenario defined entirely by the prospect of their eventual reunion—an endeavor which, like the film itself, spans years and yet remains minor in scale.
As befits any postmodern Western, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints necessarily addresses the idea of the death of the Western, or the death of the West as we have known it. Set in the Seventies, this ostensible outlaw flick picks up at the end of a crime spree that goes largely unseen. Rather, we meet Ruth and Bob, partners in (actual) crime, as they make their last stand, bringing to an end their halcyon days of crime and passion. They go down fighting though, wounding police officer Patrick (Ben Foster) in the process. Bob is hauled off to prison after claiming responsibility for a fateful shot actually fired by Ruth, and she returns home to have their daughter.
Four years later Ruth, stoic and subdued but happy in motherhood, is thrust back into the spotlight when Bob escapes from prison to come back to her, holding true to his promise that they will always be together. Bob obstinately believes this to be the case, heading back to Ruth with complete certainty. While lying low with a friend to elude the authorities, Bob explains his escape as an answer to a “higher calling.” Ruth, however, doesn’t have the luxury of undaunted conviction. Although her love for Bob endures, she has responsibilities and hard realities to consider—not least of which is ensuring her daughter’s safety, particularly as she comes under increased scrutiny by Patrick, whose attraction to her is driven in equal parts by romantic interest, fatherly concern, Christian forgiveness, and sibyllic knowledge of past events.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is less concerned with narrative and character than it is with tone and affect. While the reunion of Bob and Ruth propels the story forward, the editing and sound create a constant flow that’s actually circular in character, magically returning the couple to the idealized realm where the film begins, and where Malick-esque light spills across the screen in a never-ending magic hour. Though separated physically, Ruth and Bob speak to each other through letters that are represented as voiceovers, connecting them by honeyed, lyrical Southern tones that transcend narrative space and time.
Mara and Foster are magnetic screen presences, whereas Affleck’s Bob is a bit verbose and overwrought, every word heavy with the weight of his intransigent belief in love. Lowery seems as interested in upholding genre conventions as in up-ending them—Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is part outlaw Western, part noir crime thriller, and most of all traditional melodrama. In this sense the film fulfills its epic intentions and proves worthy of its grand Texas landscapes, while ultimately it can be reduced to a simple current of feeling and a singular force. It is trying to restore its characters, and by extension the West, to their lost mythic beginnings.