Just before the screening of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at the Milwaukee Film Festival, director David Lowery took the stage to offer a brief explanation of the film’s somewhat cryptic title. The words are never spoken throughout the film, nor do they bear any relation to the plot itself. Instead, they actually originate from Lowery’s misheard recollection of a folk song, which is fitting, because he imagines the work not as a film, but as a simple piece of folk music.
In many ways, the comparison is apt. Just as a folk musician might recycle the same three or four chords in one song, Lowery riffs off classic archetypes for his main characters: the outlaw, his faithful gal, the good-hearted sheriff, the gangsters. What seems like a very typical arrangement actually becomes a stunningly beautiful and visceral piece of art under Lowery’s direction and Bradford Young’s cinematography.
The film takes place in Texas, where the director, a Waukesha native, now lives. The plot itself is nothing wildly original, but again, that’s the point: Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are outlaw lovers whose days of mischief finally come to a close when the two are arrested after a shootout with the cops. As any love-struck outlaw would, Bob claims responsibility for injuring a police officer, even though Ruth fired the gun. Bob is then sent off to prison, where he dutifully writes letters to Ruth. Bob eventually makes an escape from jail, and he pledges to return to his lover, despite the aggressive resistance of a few men in his hometown.
Casey Affleck’s rusty, somewhat mumbling twang is often heard reading these letters throughout the film. Ruth continues on with her life – giving birth to Bob’s child, moving into her own home – trying to cling to any bit of comfort in her lover’s letters. For her part, Mara offers a calming counterbalance to Affleck’s intensity. The faithful and patient Ruth is a far cry from her role as the pierced and tatted hacker in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but she handles both characters with grace.
The two actors rarely appear on screen together, yet the distance actually makes the chemistry stronger and more heart-rending. Ruth experiences poignant flashbacks of Bob’s affection throughout the film. These short, unexpected snippets add to the tension and longing between the two.
The film’s cinematography, which earned an award at Sundance, is skillfully and poetically executed. The lighting is scant, and it grows scarcer and scarcer as the film progresses. The absence of light gave cinematographer Bradford Young ample opportunity to play heavily with shadow.
Lowery, a one-time alum of MFF, has certainly not disappointed with his return. His work on Saints is nothing short of poetry – a cinematic realization of a three-chord folk song.