Movie Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)
According to Casey Affleck, the title is the director David Lowery’s misquotation from lyrics of a song and has no actual meaning.
That’s a bit how I feel about “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It’s a beautifully atmospheric story that has no actual meaning. It’s inspired by Terrence Malick but it doesn’t inspire like Terrence Malick. It’s about a boy and a girl and a shootout and a prison escape, and how there’s no escape. It’s about men who will do what they can to protect a woman who may not be worth protecting. It’s about love and mumbling. A lot of love and a lot of mumbling. Brando’s diction was Gielgud’s in comparison.
Full disclosure: I’ve been losing my hearing for a few years but it hasn’t really been a problem until now. Until now I just turned up the volume, or leaned forward, or cupped my hand behind my ear like an old man. Last year I went to see about a hearing aid but once you begin to use it you have to use it always. It’s not like glasses, which you can take on and off. The hearing aid would be a thing I’d put in in the morning and take out at night, and that more than anything else soured me. Something else to add to the routine? Another barnacle to my hull? Not yet.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has convinced me that maybe I do need that hearing aid. So an aspect of that awful fact may color this review.
Trying to catch up to Ruth
Bob (Affleck) begins the movie trying to catch up to Ruth (Rooney Mara). He spends most of the movie doing the same.
Why is she walking away from him at the beginning? Because, in conversation with others, he used the phrase “on my own.” He has to tell her, “When I say ‘on my own,’ I mean you and me. I always mean you and me.” He says this calmly and sweetly. Then he promises her things: 1) She won’t go to jail; and 2) He’ll work on getting them out of that shack of theirs. Then she drops her bomb. “I think I’m going to have a baby,” she says. He pauses. Then a smile. It’s a gorgeous smile. “We’re going to have a baby?” he says. Again with the we. I liked him here. I like people who run to love. She’s running away from it. She’s already a bit of a pain.
It doesn’t take long before they make their play with their friend Freddy (Kentucky Audley), the son of the man, Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who helped raise them. In a shoot-out with the cops, Freddy dies, Ruth wounds one of the cops, Patrick (Ben Foster), and freaks. So Bob takes the blame. He lives up to promise #1. He surrenders himself with literal blood on his hands (Freddy’s) and goes to prison for Ruth. There, he writes letters to her even as he tries to break out of prison. The sixth time’s the charm. By this point, four-plus years, and maybe 15 minutes of screentime, have gone by. The rest of the movie is prep for his return.
No show to run
Slowly, people take positions, or take up positions around Ruth. Is Patrick using Ruth to get to Bob, or Bob to get to Ruth? In the end, he gets got himself. He falls for her and her daughter. He falls for the woman who shot him.
Ruth keeps watching the door, scared and hopeful Bob will walk in; Patrick keeps hanging around Ruth, hoping Bob will walk in; but it’s Skerritt who gets the walk-in. Bob shows up in the back of Skerritt’s store, an amused, proud look on his face. Lookee what I did. Is he a little soft in the head? He seems to be missing something up there. Maybe love is laid over it. We sing songs about it but it’s a burden.
Skerritt warns Bob away. The house that Bob didn’t get Ruth? Promise #2? Skerritt got it for her. He lets her live in one of his houses, next door to his own, and he doesn’t want Bob hanging around. Bob’s got his dream, of course—to disappear with the girls and settle down and buy a house and open a shop and grow old like Skerritt—and Skerritt’s fine with it except for the getting the girls part. “You got trouble heading your way,” he reminds him. Then he holds Bob’s face down on the wood countertop. He’s tougher than Bob. Maybe that’s why Bob wants to be him. Maybe that’s why we all do. It’s a great scene.
Bad men come looking for him. Big silent men led by a talkative runt named Bear (Charles Baker, Skinny Pete from “Breaking Bad”). Are they bounty hunters? Are they after reward money? Skerritt warns them, too, but eventually he sets the rest of the movie in motion by sending them to where they might find him. They just better not get the girls involved. Famous last words.
There’s an ennui, a dissipation, in the town and in the film. At one point we get this dialogue:
Bob: Who’s running the show?
Skerritt: No show to run. Not anymore.
That’s how it feels. Not much on the shelves here. At Maude’s Bar, where Bob holes up, which his friend, Sweetie (Nate Parker), runs, or owns, there’s even less. It’s barren and there’s rot in the floorboards.
No legendary outlaw
One night, his daughter’s 4th birthday, Bob shows up, sees his daughter through the front window, sees a man with her. It’s Patrick. Does he know it’s Patrick? He leaves anyway. He returns, I believe, to the shack where he and Ruth used to live, where the shoot-out took place, where he buried the money. This time Bear and the men are waiting. Bob gets two, one gets him. He stands over him, disbelieving. “You shot me,” Bob says to Bear. “Why’d you shoot me? I never even seen you.”
He is missing something, isn’t he? He doesn’t know the way the world works. He’s got a romantic streak in him when it comes to Ruth and himself. He thinks he’s a legendary outlaw now but there are no legendary outlaws now. It’s like what Skerritt said about the show: no one’s running it. Bloodied again, Bob flags down a driver, Will (Rami Malek), and on the way to Ruth’s they have this conversation:
Bob: Tell your daddy who you gave a ride to today.
Will (after a pause): Who?
Bob (confused): What?
Will (choosing words carefully): Who are you?
I love that. This, too. When Bob’s in prison, he writes this in a letter to Ruth. It’s about how he keeps himself going:
Every day I wake up is the day I think I’m going to see you. And one of these days, it will be so.
It is. It’s also the day he dies.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is well acted, beautifully shot, with some good, minimalist dialogue. I liked scenes. I admired the effort. Casey Affleck continues to impress and it made me retroactively miss Keith Carradine, who seems to have made a deal with the devil when it comes to aging. He’s looked about the same for 30 years.
But overall? It doesn’t resonate and I don’t know why. Too much atmosphere? Dissipation? Because it’s a copy of a copy? It’s another story of the outlaw couple, kind of, told in the manner of Terrence Malick, kind of, about a few scattered people at the end of it.
It misses the big conflict, which is dramatized in the scene between Bob and Skerritt: For the good of what you love, you should stay away from what you love. But Bob’s too thick to realize it. It’s the scorpion and the frog, and it’s in Bob’s nature to catch up to Ruth. That’s what he does, that’s what he’ll always do, but it’s not that interesting. In the end, Bob and Ruth are not that interesting. People in love rarely are.