A title can tell you so much. Or leave you puzzled but hooked—those are the great titles. Title information should be blunt and useful. But there can be the beginning of attitude or mood in a title. Bonnie and Clyde tells you what to expect: It promises actuality, love story, and a kind of celebrity eminence in the couple we behold. But Bonnie and Clyde is a good deal different from, say, Gun Crazy, You Only Live Once, or “Texas Back Country.” Those titles have warnings of violent frenzy, the unshakable doom of our lives, and the quiet patience of out-of-the way countryside, all of which hover over Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
But what do we make of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints? You might wonder, “Is that question mark in the title, or just a part of your sentence?” The title is not a question, but an assertion; it has a note of religious calm and comfort before you get to “saints.” It’s not “Aren’t Those Bodies Saints,” and that distinction lets you know these are uneducated and maybe unlettered country people we’re looking at. Though they do write letters, and they are laconic Romantic souls. Isn’t there also a distancing in the title, some hint of “Once Upon a Time,” as if we’re at a hallowed window on history, looking back on these ordinary people? And “ain’t” rhymes with “saint,” as if righteousness or glory may begin in the vernacular.
After several viewings, I don’t know what this title means, yet I can’t get it out of my head. Equally, when is this film, written and directed by David Lowery, set? The movie begins with an introduction—“This was in Texas”—and that suggests the past, just as the narrative of the picture does evoke Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 movie set in 1934, the year Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were shot to pieces on a Louisiana back road. Little in this film destroys the idea that this film could be set in the ’30s, and poor, rural lives can seem stuck in time. No one here has a computer or a cell phone, but there are cars from the 1970s.
So I can’t settle the title for you or myself anymore than you will escape the puzzle of this film. But in that silent uncertainty, watching a movie, you’re going to hold on to what the screen gives you—its movement and emotion. Your mind and your eyes reach out to Rooney Mara, who is playing a woman named Ruth Guthrie. Mara is at the point, or so inclined, that she looks different in every film. In this case she is a lean, hard, country woman with long dark hair and plain cotton clothes. She has blue-black eyes and a face like bone. She’s beautiful, you may say, but as austere as a woman from Dorothea Lange pictures. Her experience, her poverty, controls the look she gives the world. She doesn’t smile much and she has a harshness, a solitariness, that comes from generations of knowing you’re going to have to look after yourself in this world. That self-sufficiency is part of the saintliness. But when she does smile you notice a streak of Audrey Hepburn—the Hepburn whose Holly Golightly was once Lula Mae Barnes in Texas.
This is a hell of a film, a marvelous experience, far more beautiful than sentimental.
Ruth is romanticized sometimes as an image. Her hair moves in the wind like the long grass and she is seen with the setting sun of magic hour on her shoulder. She has a man, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), and in the opening tracking shot, as they walk through a meadow, we know they are lovers. She says she’s going to have a baby. But while they embrace, the wariness never leaves Ruth’s face. This isn’t going to be Ruth loves Bob.
With abrupt speed, and lack of preparation, the couple have pulled off a criminal job. We do not know what they did, the film never bothers with that “fun.” We go straight to a country cabin where the couple have holed up, with the police outside shooting at them. Ruth shoots back along with Bob, and she hits one of the cops. But when they’re arrested, Bob says he fired that shot, and he is sent to prison for 25 years while she has their baby. The policeman who was shot recovers, and we never know whether he guesses it was Ruth who wounded him. But that cop, Patrick (Ben Foster), begins to take an interest in Ruth and the child. This feeling is not spelled out, and Ruth is no more than observant of the man’s shy kindness. But then Bob breaks out of prison, drawn by destiny to see his woman and his child.
I’ll say no more, and I don’t know that I could. This is not a film where every line of dialogue is clear or shaped for the ear. Even played by actors, these are Texas country people who do not seem obedient just because they are in a story. I’m not certain after three viewings about everything that happens or is suggested. I don’t know the status or the hopes of Keith Carradine, playing an older man, wealthy enough to look after Ruth, but too shy to be more than a father figure—so maybe it is unfitting to say that Carradine is magnificent. Still, he is. More to the point, this is not Ruth and Bob as heartfelt lovers reuniting even if it means death.
When this film opened at Sundance, in a very favorable review in The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy said it was an honestly sentimental film. I’m not so sure. It has that potential, and when Bob and Ruth are led away from the hideout hut there is an agonized shot of them embracing as they walk and then being parted. But in that opening shot I mentioned, we were taught to notice Ruth’s solitude, and even when Bob comes back it is without romantic music.
Just as Ruth has few clothes, no makeup and no reason for life beyond her daughter, so she is not saved or transported by being “in love.” Four people in the film adore her, but she trusts only one of them, her daughter. She will be with one man or another, because men cling to women. There is no sexual reward here, no comfort or rapture. I’m not sure yet what I feel at the end, but I take that turmoil as an achievement of the film. As you watch it—like the daughter watching life, and Ruth watching the child—you’re going to have to hold on to the shape and sound of Mara and wonder whether Ruth may not be a saint just by existing. So this is not a film about God or love getting you through. Ruth is one of those pale women Faulkner and Lange depicted, hard enough to endure, but sufficiently tender to suffer. This is a hell of a film, a marvelous experience, far more beautiful than sentimental, so long as you don’t have to have a mind made up for you.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.