Home is all that matters in the end. In David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, this is a theme that runs throughout the film’s runtime. The picture begins with Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel, as Ruth announces her desire to go home. Bob rejects her wish as folly, but she explains she doesn’t want to go to their home, but her home. Later in the film, Bob is asked the question, “Who are you?” He has no answer. He has no home.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints deals with much more than its barebones “tell me the plot in 20 words or less” suggests. Bob admits to a crime that Ruth is guilty of, landing him in prison and leaving her single with a baby on the way. After a few years and (we’re told) five attempts, Bob manages to break out of jail. He’s on the run, trying to get back to Ruth like he promised, with the police and criminals Bob managed to tick off trying to track him down. There is no real pursuit here. Both factions are merely lying in wait in the town where Ruth lives with their daughter. The question is not whether or not Bob will come home to take his family away, but when? And at what cost to the ones he loves?
Director Lowery, in only his second film, offers us a fine modern-day interpretation of classic Terrence Malick. The natural light, beautiful framing, and narration calls back to the days of Kit and Holly in 1973’s Badlands, and the many shots of Bob and Ruth in never-ending fields hearken back to the days of Bill, Abby, and Linda trying to get by in 1978’s Days of Heaven. Though the influence of Malick is felt throughout, Lowery makes the film his own with the aforementioned themes and easy-going direction. The chemistry between Mara and Affleck is so strong from the start that although they spend little time together, we still feel them together as the film carries on, just as much as these characters can still feel one another despite the years and events that have separated them.
The supporting cast excels just as well. Ben Foster, who still somehow manages to get lost in rampant “best of young Hollywood” discussions, is memorable in a low-key role as a police officer forever linked with Bob and Ruth through their crime at the film’s beginning, but becomes very much present in the lives of Ruth and her daughter by the time Bob escapes.
However, it is Keith Carradine’s Skerritt who steals the show. Carradine has made quite the career for himself on the small screen over the past decade, with recurring roles in shows such as Deadwood, Dexter, and Fargo, but his role as Bob and Ruth’s former guardian reminds us of the movie star he was in early Robert Altman and Walter Hill films of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. It’s a commanding performance of a man with a complicated past of his own who is forced to make even more complicated decisions in his later years, and Carradine pulls it off beautifully. The actor even found time to provide the song “The Light” for the film’s soundtrack.
Both Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young are only in their early ‘30s, and the promise of each in their respective fields should garner them attention for the years to come. The dependence on natural light creates fear in a late-night shootout, romance as the sun sets, and the mystery of a silhouette courtesy of an old living room lamp. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints doesn’t need stage lights hanging off of every set piece or lit up above every camera. The idea of home would be lost altogether, and like the needs of its characters, home is essential.