‘All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.’ Jean–Luc Goddard
That may well be true, but Ain’t Them Bodies Saints offers more than a simple tale of Bonnie and Clyde style lovable rogues, and instead shows us complex relationships set against the background of a wider Texan countryside community. This is a finely balanced piece that links criminal gangs with the characters’ desire for a normal family life. The consequences of actions executed in the heat of the moment have effects that last many years. So a family drama contrasts with a crime noir fiction.
In a single backtracking take through the Texas countryside we see two lovers striding purposefully as they bicker and chatter. ‘I think I’m gonna have a baby,’ declares Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) to her partner Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck). But their future isn’t going to involve any form of domestic bliss as Bob is involved with a gang of robbers. Escaping to an old barn following a job, they are followed by the police; gunfire blazes between those in uniform and those in the hideout. If all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl, then Ruth, hiding with the gang, changes their future when she declares to Bob, ‘I think I shot someone.’ Indeed one of the policemen has been shot and the gang are soon captured. Bob faces 25 years in jail for armed robbery whilst the pregnant Ruth receives no custodial sentence, although she states that, ‘I’m gonna wait for him.’ And wait she does, giving birth to a baby girl Sylvie some months later, the news revealed to Bob in jail as the couple write letters to each other. Bob realises that by the time his sentence is served he will first meet his daughter as a young woman, so he hatches a plan to ‘settle down’ and to rejoin his family. He escapes from prison and seeks to find Ruth and the child. However, life on the run is harsh; the police want him back and his former-gang members, learning of his departure from the state penitentiary, want him to locate the money they had stolen prior to his incarceration. Bob needs friends, money and, of course, something nice to give as a present for his young daughter.
Even though Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a film where violence is one of the main themes, it is, nevertheless, a thoroughly languid film, taking its time to tell its little tale, and is all the more interesting for it. Normally the viewer would be expected to side either with the outlaws (if portrayed as sympathetic, which they are to a degree here) or root for the law, but in this instance all the main protagonists have motivations that are far more complex. All have backgrounds that make their present situations more or less understandable and – sometimes – forgivable. Central to the film is the passionate relationship between Ruth and Bob; Ruth is the one who is guilty, but Bob is incarcerated in prison. Saints and sinners, then, although absolution is something that may or may not be permitted. As Rose is interviewed by her local law officer (who is unaware that it may have been she who shot him) his keenness to be a friend to both mother and daughter is clear when he states, ‘Whatever it is you’ve done, when I see you with your daughter all I see is good.’ These complex relationships lie at the heart of the film, contrasting with the violence as Bob confronts the brutal desires of his former-gang.
Throughout the running time, the film uses carefully defined naturalistic cinematography which helps enhance the realism of the situation and story. The whole offers us a very different approach to family drama and is thoroughly worthwhile viewing.