Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Directed by David Lowery

aint-them-bodies-saints

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a quiet, modern western with similarities to No Country For Old MenHell or High Water and a little Terrence Malick Tree of Life thrown in.  It’s a solid story that mostly takes it’s time and might feel unwelcome if it were any longer than its 90 minute runtime.

The story is about a young couple, Bob and Ruth (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), and Bob’s journey to return to her after escaping from prison.  The bulk of the story takes place when their daughter, Syvlie, is about to turn 4.  By this point Bob has escaped from prison and is on the run, trying to return home while evading the police and a group of three gunmen who have it out for him.

The story feels purposefully vague and this, at times, alternately helps and hurts the movie.  First, we get a quick glimpse of Bob and Ruth as a happy, young couple.  Then, suddenly, they are committing armed robbery, but before we can see what they’re planning, they are just as quickly pinned down in a small shack, stuck in a shootout with police.  In this scene their third partner is shot and killed before Ruth grabs a gun and shoots a police officer.  Bob takes the fall, claiming that she was in over her head, and he goes to prison while she remains free.  Bob promises to come back to her, and all Ruth has to do is wait for him.

The next thing we know, it’s 4 years later.  Ruth lives in a nice house with her daughter, next door to her surrogate father, Skerritt (Keith Carradine), and Bob is on the run from prison.

Bob hides out with an old friend, Sweetie (Nate Parker), and recovers the money he had stolen 4 years earlier.  He visits Skerritt, a surrogate father to him just as to Ruth, and tells her he wants to take his family and hit the road.  Skerritt tells him he better leave now, insinuating that trouble follows Bob where he goes, and he better not get his family mixed up in this.

As this is going on, Ruth becomes friendly with the cop that she thought (though of course he doesn’t know this) named Patrick (Ben Foster).  Patrick looks out for her once the news of Bob’s escape gets out.

Bob writes to Ruth that he wants to run away with her and their daughter.  He tells her where to meet him, but Ruth writes back (through Skerritt) that she can’t go with him.  This dilemma is clear from the start: Bob’s outlaw life doesn’t mix well with Ruth and a young daughter.  I think the audience can recognize that this story won’t end well.  Bob will either want to see his family and get arrested for it (since the cops are all around), or he will have to hit the road on his own and say goodbye to the woman he loves (and the movie makes it feel like their love is the only thing that matters).

But then Bob is attacked by the three gunmen we have seen menacingly lurking about town.  They have it out for Bob in some way that we don’t fully understand, just as we don’t fully understand Bob’s and Ruth’s criminal lifestyle before the shootout.

In a gripping sequence, Bob kills two of the men and in the process is himself shot.  He gets a ride back into town by a young passerby (Rami Malek) and is already knocking on death’s door, bleeding out from his gut.

Meanwhile, Patrick stays the night on the couch with Ruth, promising to look out for her so she can get some rest, which she says she hasn’t gotten in four years.  The next morning a couple gunshots ring out.  Patrick goes outside to see the third gunmen who pursued Bob having shot next door neighbor Skerritt.  Patrick shoots the third gunmen dead, then tends to Skerritt’s wounds before he dies.  Just before his death, Skerritt mistakes Patrick for Bob and utters some words about how Bob and Skerritt’s son (who died in the original shootout) were always just kids who knew nothing.

Patrick takes Ruth and Sylvie to the police station following the incident, and when they return home, Bob has crawled inside the house, bleeding to death.  Ruth says one final goodbye, and Bob gets his first clear look at the daughter he never met.  Patrick then takes Sylvie outside so she doesn’t have to witness the mess inside while Ruth says goodbye to Bob.  We intercut this moment (Bob’s head in her lap) with an earlier conversation before the robbery gone wrong that landed Bob in jail.  In that memory, Bob lies with his head in her lap in a pickup truck, telling a story about their future to their unborn daughter.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the type of visually beautiful, breathy, whispery, gunshot-y, lovers longing type of film I would have loved in high school.  It’s a very well-made film, but it feels much neater as a story than I would’ve considered it back then.

On one hand, it’s tragic that the gunmen killed Bob, ruining his chance to be with his family, but on the other hand, it’s a necessary story-telling device to give us a definite ending.  The only other alternatives would have been Bob in jail or Bob turning his back on his family and hitting the road by himself.  The audience wouldn’t have wanted either of those endings because they are unsettling or open-ended.  Bob had to die for this story to work.

First of all, this film declares itself to be a sort of love poem from the beginning.  These aren’t just two kids who love each other, these are two souls who belong together.  They probably take themselves more seriously than the rest of the characters would (Skerritt, for example, seems a little exasperated by their romance), but this story is shown through the lens of Bob and Ruth.  This story is like The Iliad.  It’s so important that Bob make it back to his wife and daughter, and the ending must be definite.

Really, I just think it would be underwhelming if Bob decided to flee the town, realizing he would never be with his wife and daughter.  It’s a choice that would weigh heavy on him, and I want to see him make that choice, but we never do.  When Bob returns home and sees Patrick in his house, he turns to leave, back to his small hideout in the countryside.  It’s unclear what Bob would have done, but that moment was the most gripping to me.  I wanted to know what Bob would decide to do: run or return home or kidnap his family?  It’s not an easy decision, but we knew that from the moment he escaped from prison.

Decisions like those are what reveal true character, but Bob never has to make that decision.  On some level it feels like a cop out.  Sure he is killed in the process, so we think it’s a bad thing that happened, but it lets him off the hook.  When Bob is shot, aware that he’s dying, he knows exactly what he must do, but oftentimes stories, and characters, are most fascinating in the gray area moments, when they could do multiple things and we don’t yet know which path they will embark on.

The three gunmen are mysterious and vague.  They are not underdeveloped, because it’s clear that the intention is for us to not know who they are or what they’re up to.  Instead they’re an almost inhuman force of evil.  They look evil, they sneer like evil people, they’re really not even human.  Maybe they could be seen as a personification of Bob’s guilt.  Maybe not, because his guilt should be clear already.

Really, okay, this is the problem I have.  I mean, I’ve already stated it.  I said high school me would have loved this film, and that’s true, because Bob and Ruth’s love story is something a 15 year old romantic would swoon over.  Their love was meant to be like Romeo and Juliet.  But the world wouldn’t let it happen.  Isn’t it so romantic how Bob took the fall for Ruth?  Their love is so meant to be that they will either be together or die trying.

But what if there love isn’t meant to be?  I mean, let’s take a step back and not take this quite so seriously.  We don’t know how or why they were committing armed robbery, but it suggests they have a Bonnie and Clyde-esque life, at least on some level.  So their love is a little warped.  It’s not perfect, it’s actually kind of messy.  Bob and Ruth live on a plane of thinking in which normal rules don’t apply.

When Bob escapes from prison, we can probably assume that it’s because his prison sentence was very long.  He serves four years in jail, so maybe his sentence was 10 years?  15 years?  More?  Who knows, but he had to get out of there.  I don’t know if it would’ve been better to know how long his sentence was, but I had this feeling that it wasn’t too much longer than what he had already served.

What if it was somehow a 6 year sentence?  That would make his decision to escape after 4 years that much more interesting.  If we accept 6 years as the sentence, then escaping after 4 makes Bob kind of reckless (which I think we’re supposed to know he is), and it makes him kind of stupid.

Thus, the decision at the end of the film, to run or to stay would have been that much more interesting because he’s paying for his stupid decision to escape prison.

But Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is extremely vague on the details of so much of these characters lives because we’re not supposed to know what the alternatives were because we’re not supposed to second guess Bob and Ruth.  We’re supposed to be on their side, so the story purposefully withholds information that might distance us from them.

It’s because of this that we are completely immersed in their worldview.  Bob and Ruth never had a choice, it seems.  Their love has been taken away from them by the world, but you know what?  I think they took it away themselves.

The only evidence we have of Bob and Ruth’s life before they committed armed robbery is through Skerritt.  He’s a father-figure to both characters, and he seems nothing but caring.  He’s stern, to be sure, but he cares for them.  Hell, after Bob goes to prison, Skerritt gives Ruth a house to live in right next door to him.  Then, when Bob escapes prison, he comes to visit Skerritt who hugs him but then tells him the bitter, accurate truth: Bob can’t go back to his girls, not now, not ever.

But if Skerritt is so loving, stern but loving, then what drove Bob and Ruth into that crime life?  Was Skerritt not there for them to help where necessary?  We don’t know.

So this irritates me because Bob and Ruth aren’t that smart, but this is a film that thrusts us into their perspective, and from that point of view, everything is destined or fatal, because I suppose that’s how young-ish love feels sometimes.

 

EDIT: Apparently Bob was serving a 25 year sentence, which makes his escape from prison more understandable.  There may have been other details I simply missed, and the way the story is told makes it easy to miss certain specifics.  I do like that the script isn’t concerned with all the details.  We’re only told what we need to know, and even then we’re not told everything we want to know.  The focus of the story is more abstract than a lot of similar films.  The world Bob and Ruth’s love occupies is not this world, it’s something further out, like they’re alien life forms who found each other amongst humans.  So the details of how they met, why they’re in love, what their lives were like, none of it matters because the story is about their love, nothing else.

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