Violent delights have violent ends

Emma Street is swept along by a crime epic in which nothing really happens

“Doesn’t this remind you just the tiniest bit of Badlands?” Rooney Mara and Casey Afflect share a quiet moment

The poster for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has a quote on it saying “A Grand, Doomed Love Story” in massive letters. This would be a heck of a spoiler if it wasn’t clear from the start that things were never going to work out well for our two heroes.

Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) are two lawbreakers, crazy in love with one another. The film starts with a shoot-out, there’s a prison breakout, some bounty hunters and a pretty high body count. It’s nothing like as action-packed as that makes it sound, though. Director David Lowery seems more interested in what happens in the spaces between the action. People have mumbly conversations, stare out of windows and Ruth plays with her daughter’s hair a lot.

"No, I'm thinking now it's more like Days of Heaven."
“No, I’m thinking now it’s more like Days of Heaven.”

The film is not only set in the 1970s, it looks like it was actually made then. The whole thing’s drab and brown-coloured. It’s like looking at pictures of your parent’s old living room. There’s no flamboyant 70s disco here – just terrible taste in home furnishings and a lot of facial hair. Inevitably, the blurry dull 70s vision also makes it look like a teenager’s Instagram account where the photo filter has been set to “small town claustrophobia”.

At the start of the story, Ruth wounds a policeman during a shoot-out. In order to protect his pregnant wife, Bob claims that the shot was fired by him. All he asks of Ruth, in true cinematic style is that she wait for him. The film’s narrative is provided by Bob’s letters to Ruth from prison, with his single-minded devotion to seeing his family again driving the plot.

The audience doesn’t see any of Bob and Ruth’s criminal activity firsthand. All we’re shown of the crime spree is what we glimpse on newspaper headlines. This allows us to have a romantic sense of the pair as Wild West outlaws rather than violent criminals. Although, the large sums of money in Bob’s hidden suitcase and the number of enemies he’s managed to rack up would suggest that his criminal past was fairly robust.

While Bob has been plotting his numerous escape plans in prison (“Sixth time’s a charm”), Ruth has been raising their daughter Sylvia alone. She has been financially supported by Magistrate turned hardware store-owner, Skerrit (brilliantly portrayed by Keith Carradine) who is the father of Bob’s deceased partner-in-crime, Freddy, and hinted to be the reason why our outlaws got involved in crime in the first place.

"Dear Ruth. No, I've decided it's more The Tree Of Life."
“Dear Ruth. No, I’ve decided it’s more The Tree Of Life.”

Police sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) tentatively starts to offer emotional support to Ruth and her daughter – demonstrating that he bears no ill-will for the gunshot wound he believes he received from Bob.

Patrick is the antithesis to Bob. Quiet rather than verbose, reserved instead of headstrong, an upholder rather than a breaker of the law. This isn’t a film about a woman choosing between two suitors, though. Love (and life) is more messy and unsatisfying than that. Lowery said that he wanted people watching the film to feel like they have just heard an old folk song that they’ve never heard before. He sort of pulls it off. The stories are small but the emotions are epic. I enjoyed being wrapped in the cosy despondency and the bleak, pretty scenery in the same way I enjoy hearing Woody Guthrie sing about being a worried man.

The landscapes portrayed in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints are flat and spacious. This mirrors the conversations which are understated and usually punctuated with long pauses. Apart from Bob, who pretty much never shuts up, everyone uses as few words as possible. Words become imbued with meaning when there are so few of them. “I’m happy to be here” is Patrick’s only explanation of why he wants to spend time with Ruth and Sylvia.

Ruth and Bob barely share any screen time together. Each has their own journey and we just need to watch the events unfold until their paths inevitably intersect. They clearly believe that they belong together. Bob is Romeo to Ruth’s Juliet. And the problem with being Romeo and Juliet of course is that your love is doomed from the start. There’s never going to be a happy ending.

Emma Street writes C-List Celebrity Workouts a weekly review of workout DVDs made by celebrities whose talents lie elsewhere

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