Casey Affleck assumes the quiet, thoughtful demeanor of his cowardly killer in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford again in Director David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Less a coward than a lovesick ne'er-do-well, Affleck's Bob Muldoon takes the blame for shooting a cop to save his girlfriend, Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), from prison. Facing years in confinement, Bob writes earnest, heartbroken letters to Ruth, promising his return and begging her to stay faithful. Lowery's film is a beautifully shot and scored poem about separation and redemption that is set in a 1970s Texas hill country. The visuals and fine, subtle performances show Lowery is a talented young director, and his past experience as an editor is evident in each frame. Lowery also wrote the script, which proves to be the film's biggest detractor. Meager to a fault, the narrative begs the audience to feel emotion for the characters that the film never achieves, leaving Ain't Them Bodies Saints an attractive but somewhat stilted rumination on love.
The intense courtship of Bob and Ruth comes to an end amid a hail of gunfire. Outlaw and miscreant Bob has made a living on the wrong side of the law, and trampled many friends and acquaintances along this bumpy road. Ruth proves a catalyst for change, but Bob still takes one last big job in hopes of providing her and their unborn daughter a proper home. This ends in a standoff, in which Ruth wounds a local officer. Bob begs her to run and, against Ruth's wishes, surrenders to face his crimes. He winds up on the front end of a lengthy prison sentence, and Ruth raises her young daughter with financial help from a local store owner (Keith Carradine). As Ruth grows distant from her incarcerated love, a local officer (Ben Foster) befriends her and grows close to the broken family.
With a title open to interpretation and an unhurried, wandering pace, Ain't Them Bodies Saints feels like something Terrence Malick or the Coen Brothers might have directed, abet to different degrees of indulgence and quirkiness. There's little that is definitive in the film, with its thinly drawn characters and unexplained dramatic shifts. This structure is purposely constructed, of course, by a director less concerned with feeding his audience's appetite for answers than using light, sound and mood to create an immersive experience. The core relationship between Bob and Ruth is similarly illusory. The film doesn't specifically define their past, but it hints that they have only been together for a short time. I imagine a period of discontent for Ruth before she storms out of the house and threatens to leave in the opening scene. I'd label Bob as infatuated, while Ruth is in love but wavering thanks to Bob's chosen career. Ruth's love is stretched thin while Bob is in jail, but she continues to hold out hope for his promised escape. The film never shows her break down or get particularly upset, but her lack of emotion is telling.
The small town setting, unhurried lives and golden-hued backdrops create a warmly nostalgic mood, and Lowery proves adept at shooting folky Americana in a way that never turns it to kitsch. The framing and use of natural light are beautiful, as is Daniel Hart's score. Affleck, Mara and the supporting cast do a fine job, often substituting body language for dialogue. I was somewhat frustrated that I never felt the jabs of heartache and loneliness that film tries desperately to evoke. The film straddles the line between evocative and detached, and the latter lessens the emotional impact. The tone and pace remind me of the aforementioned Jesse James, and Affleck is slowly building a career as the perpetual outsider. If his brother, Ben, is the popular jock, then Casey is the sensitive theater student with untapped emotion. I look forward to seeing both Affleck and Lowery's next projects. Ain't Them Bodies Saints is not perfectly executed, but it comes close to being an authentic exploration of misunderstood love and the American home.
The cinematography by Bradford Young and complementary direction from Lowery are the film's best assets, and the 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer does a nice job preserving the intended look of the film. The 35 mm production looks like film - as it should - and the Blu-ray replicates the beautiful natural light and shadow captured in camera. Detail is generally excellent, as is texture, which is abundant in the flannel shirts, worn-plank houses and muddy grass fields of Texas. Black levels are strong with only slight crush due to the filming techniques. There are a couple of spots when I noticed some aliasing and shimmer, though nothing too obtrusive, and both color saturation and contrast and handled well.
Save the few gunshots at opposite ends of the film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is quiet and dreamy, but you'll notice the environment immediately via the subtle ambient effects prominently featured on the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The hum of insects and soft roar of the wind outside surround the viewer, and these ambient effects are balanced nicely with dialogue and score. The action heavy moments are appropriately handled and awaken the subwoofer, and both separation and clarity are more than adequate. There's also a 2.0 LPCM mix and English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release comes with dual-sided artwork. I suspect the marketing folks asked for the outward-facing side, which features Foster and another actor holding guns. The reverse, with a dreamy image of Affleck and Mara being led by a deputy, is a more appropriate representation of the film. Extras include the Untitled Ross Brothers Documentary (13:21/SD) about the production and some Deleted Scenes (8:59/HD). The Lights (3:32/HD) is a music video by Keith Carradine, and Behind the Scenes (4:48/HD) is little more than EPK fluff. You also get the film's Trailer (2:29/HD); a Bob Muldoon Teaser (0:53/HD); Ruth Guthrie Teaser (0:48/HD); and some Color Bars (2:53/HD) that are followed by some unexpected Bloopers. The best extra is a complete film: St. Nick (1:24:44/SD). This is Lowery's first directorial feature, previously unreleased, and concerns a young brother and sister who leave home to live in the wilderness.
Audiences looking for a cut-and-dry narrative and thoroughly explored characters may find Ain't Them Bodies Saints frustrating in its lack of definitive answers. This beautifully shot rumination on love in small-town Texas benefits from strong performances by Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster, as well as David Lowery's keen direction. The film is subtle to a fault and never quite achieves the emotional response it desires. Even so, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is an impressive attempt at American authenticity and a handsome diversion worth viewing at least once. Rent It.