If we learned anything from the critical successes of backwoods dramas like Winter's Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene and even The Hunger Games films, it is that the most powerful ones are those that offer an accessibility in their storytelling that goes beyond their primal landscapes. Does AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS do that? Eh, not really.
The problem with the film, written and directed by David Lowery, is that it's tepidly drawn, with molasses-like pacing and an anticlimactic ending that does little to keep the audience invested. Luckily, the film's committed performances from stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, and supporting players Nate Parker and Keith Carradine, will keep you from walking out of the theater altogether.
Mara stars as Ruth, a small town young woman who's humble in every sense of the word. Lowery, obviously taking a page out of Terrence Malick's handbook, introduces Ruth in a flicker of scenes portraying her silent emotion. When we meet her, she's annoyed because she thinks her beau, Bob (Affleck), has plans to leave her. Affleck, always the guy you feel compelled to trust even though you probably shouldn't (something he's great at), as Bob gently smooths over Ruth's worries with a playful hug and an earnest vow to love her forever. And thus begins their sorrowful romance.
Weaving together a movie that often feels like a fated Emily Dickinson poem bundled in a rugged noir-style lens, Lowery paints a tale that could best answer what would happen if Bonnie and Clyde were forced to separate after Clyde took the fall for a crime Bonnie committed while raiding a general store. A police officer is shot by a pregnant Ruth. Bob is given a stiff prison sentence, leaving Ruth to care for their daughter and rely on the hope that their love will one day reunite them. Years later, Bob manages to escape from jail with his heart focused on his return to Ruth. The bulk of the film is spent on his bumpy, and at times bloody, trek down the Texas dirt roads to reclaim his love, while fending off law enforcement and other kind along the way.
Lowery juxtaposes Bob's determined journey with the much less eventful one Ruth has embraced, with only an unrequited romantic suitor (a meddling Foster) being the most interesting thing about her (especially as she has become quite content with her lower, modest profile as a working mother). But the pace of the film is interrupted by Ruth's rather bleak story, causing both parts to drag. The film relies heavily on the poeticism of their love, but since we rarely spend any time with them together as a couple (unless you count Ruth's scattered flashbacks) there is nothing else left to sustain its audience. It's dry, inaccessible and leaves you utterly unsatisfied (the trait of any bad romance if there ever was one).
Parker and Carradine, two wandering characters with whom Lowery clearly enjoyed toying around, aren't among the two fated pair but still provide an intriguing escape from the melted central romance. Bob seeks refuge with Sweetie (Parker), who we never get to know too well but he has moments of dissimulation when we don't really know what his next move may be, or how he may choose to sit with information Bob has given him. It's an interesting tactic that never really comes to fruition, but is a good initial front for the character. Meanwhile, Carradine plays one hell of a devilish confidante for Bob and is less unassuming with his intent.
Overall, AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS features a slew of wonderful talent that had the unfortunate task of uplifting a screenplay that had all the potential but no resonance.
Rating: C- (** out of *****)
AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS is in theaters Friday.