David Lowery sets his much-praised drama of crime and romantic love, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, in a small-town Southern past that’s been run, for softening purposes, through the mythography machine. “This was in Texas,” reads the opening title; but when it was exactly, I’d be hard-pressed to say.
Neither the vehicles nor the firearms do much to specify the period, the former being chrome-detailed six-seaters when new (and rattling, rusted-out trucks when not), the latter conforming to a traditionalist’s preference for revolvers and shotguns, with not an automatic in sight. At the local roadhouse, a crowd that’s modern enough to be interracial drinks to old-fashioned music of indeterminate vintage. Most touching of all these details of bygone folkways is the method that the story’s beautiful, tragic lovers use to correspond. They do it with paper and pencil, beginning each letter with the formal greeting that schoolchildren used to practice: Dear Ruth, comma. Dear Bob.
If you were to insist that I venture a date for the action, I might guess 1967, for reasons that are purely film-historical. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints may draw on motifs of guilt and redemption that run deep in America, but judging from the attitude that Lowery adopts toward Ruth and Bob, I suspect his imagination takes off from a point no further back than the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde.
“They’re young—they’re in love—and they kill people.” So boasted the Bonnie and Clyde ad campaign, summarizing an outlaw glamour that scandalized some viewers in 1967 and thrilled many others. For Saints, Lowery has not cast any stars as Vogue-ready as Faye Dunaway, nor has he played up the sense of high spirits that pervaded much of Bonnie and Clyde, but he does begin his movie with a lushly pretty evocation of a bond that will be sealed in violence. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are made to seem very young as Ruth and Bob, with Mara acting fierce but looking more birdlike than ever with her hair pulled back in two balled-up ponytails, and Affleck setting his level-eyed, square-cut face like a plaque that certifies guilelessness. They’re so in love that they fight over which one is glued more eternally to the other. And although they aren’t quick to kill people, they do shoot and wound within the first five minutes or so of the movie, bungling an elliptically edited robbery that ends with their partner dead, a sheriff gushing blood, Bob frog-marched toward jail and Ruth left behind with a baby on the way.
With that prologue concluded, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints settles down to its main business: to evoke the longing between these criminal lovers by arranging a very protracted homecoming for Bob. Having escaped from prison after four years, he slowly makes his way toward Ruth, who has been waiting for him with the faithfulness of her biblical namesake. On Bob’s side, the conduct of the journey is sometimes barefoot and desperate but always singleminded. On Ruth’s side, though, the waiting is perhaps tinged with ambivalence. Suggestions arise that she might feel bound to Bob not only by love but also, less happily, by a guilty sense of obligation. It’s also possible that she is not unaffected by the gentle, protective attention of the sheriff (Ben Foster) who was wounded in the aftermath of the robbery, and who has now become more than forgiving toward her. Lowery’s subtle storytelling, and Mara’s cagey performance, keep these hints in play just under the movie’s surface. Still, when Ruth repeatedly denies knowing of an impending visit from Bob, her defiance comes across like a proud announcement: he’ll be here any day.