If you read through the plot on paper, Ain't Them Bodies Saints sounds like a story about a tragic but enduring love that survives prison, separation, violence, and even death. But when you see the story play out on screen, it's really a film about loneliness.
Of course, it's no surprise that pregnant Ruth (Rooney Mara) would feel lonely after her husband takes the fall for her crime and goes to prison for 25 to life. But it's not so much her situation as the hovering, close-up camerawork that follows all the characters in the film, including Ruth's young daughter, that makes these characters feel isolated and removed from control of their own lives. That lack of control is also a central theme that taints the efforts of anyone involved. While some critics are noting the movie's similarity to a tighter, less elevated Terrence Malick (which is true, particularly given the lengthy nature-gaze moments), we'd call this neatly-wrapped story line almost Shakespearian. Star-crossed lovers would be an understatement for the plight of Ruth and Bob (Casey Affleck).
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are near perfect. When we attended the film premiere for the opening of BAM's Cinemafest, Affleck told us, affectionately, that working with Mara wasn't unlike being around an exotic animal — "you never know when she's going to rip your throat out." That's true both of her character's nature and of her wide-eyed but decidedly not bushy-tailed performance style. Affleck, on the other hand, seems to ooze easily into the mold of a young man who can't seem to grasp the consequences of action in the real world, always giggling and sort of stumbling around, but ultimately unable to reach his boyish, dream-like goals. Affleck's slurred, thick Southern accent and twinkling gaze can be endearing when he's whispering in a woman's ear, and appropriately scary when he has a gun in his hand. But ultimately, it's clear from the very beginning that he's anything but an action hero — evidenced by his surprised exclamation at an unnamed enemy, mid-battle: "Why'd you shoot me?"
There's nothing that happens in this movie that feels surprising. As much as you want it all to work out, the tone of the film overall tells you from the get-go that it won't (not that that will stop you from crying at the end). The one odd thing is that for a movie that manages to look at the passage of time in a refreshingly real way, moments of death (there are several) are reduced to a significant look, a final sigh, and a slouch. Not that it has to be gruesome, and perhaps, on reflection, that glossing-over is part of the film's simple, sad charm. And charm definitely plays a big part, though that word sounds a little bit too sparkling and happy to describe this one.
Maybe it's Rooney's model good looks, or maybe we're just a sad by-product of fashion's recent obsession with vintage, but this movie looks suspiciously similar to an Urban Outfitters catalogue at times. That's one thing that separates the work of director David Lowery's aesthetic from Mallick's — Mallick's temporal settings never feel gimmick-y, while this one occasionally does. But in the end, you can't help but be won over by the combination of matter-of-fact grittiness, proverbial wisdom, and faded backdrops for fading lives. See it if you're interested in, as Lowery puts it, a "movie with a capital M," see it if you like a good cry that leaves you still feeling somehow uplifted, and definitely see it if you like looking at pretty faces who haven't showered in a few days. It's great for all three.
Photo: Courtesy of Primary Productions.