In David Lowery's sublime new film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), who's serving 25 to life for armed robbery and wounding a cop during a shootout, frequently puts pencil to parchment paper and writes love letters to his girlfriend, Ruth (Rooney Mara). Bob's aching, lovelorn voice can be heard in voice-over throughout the film, reading those letters, setting the tone for a story suffused with longing, loss and an unexpected eroticism: "I'll write you every day," he reads, "and someday you'll see a letter from me, and you will look up, and it will be me who's handing it to you. And then we can forget about words, and I'll touch your face, and I'll kiss you."
In a prologue that's both romantic and narratively taut, Bob and Ruth argue, make up, and then join Bob's lifelong friend Freddy (Kentucker Audley) in robbing some sort of warehouse. The police give chase, Freddy is killed, and Bob and Ruth are hauled out of their bullet-riddled house. As they're led out, side by side, their bodies instinctively bump and rub against each other. She whispers in his ear, he in hers, and just before they're yanked apart, Bob nuzzles Ruth's neck and takes a deep breath, as if absorbing her essence. It's one of the most sensual scenes in recent film.
Four years later, Ruth, having been acquitted of all charges (perhaps because she was pregnant), is living in a house loaned to her by Freddy's father, Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who lives next door. As a storyteller, Lowery has a maddening but tantalizing way of withholding specifics, leaving the viewer to put together that Skerritt is Freddy's father, but not Bob's, and that he's helping Ruth out of loyalty to his son's memory.
Or so it appears. Skerritt owns the hardware store, but he may actually own the whole town, in ways both upright and nefarious. It may be that he's keeping Ruth close because he wants to be there when Bob comes for her, as everyone knows he will, sooner or later. It's a testament to the brilliance of Carradine's performance that Skerritt ends up being the film's most unknowable — and most fascinating — character.
Ruth, meanwhile, doesn't appear surprised when Patrick (Ben Foster), the cop who got shot after the robbery, comes by to say that Bob has escaped prison. Patrick is a quiet, contained man, but he can't take his eyes off Ruth, and he can't resist charming little Sylvie (played by twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith), who wants a horse for her fourth birthday, a gift Patrick offers to arrange.
Is Ruth attracted to Patrick? Ruth isn't saying, and again, Lowery wants audiences to fill in the blanks. Mara, who played the title role in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, somehow manages, despite Lowery's spare dialogue, to convey the conflicts swirling within Ruth. There's the heavy guilt she carries over her complicity in the robbery and subsequent shootout, and most of all, there's the agony Ruth feels for loving her daughter more than she loves Bob, who's still sending letters, even on the lam.
Set in the 1970s, but grounded in a Depression-era sensibility, Ain't Them Bodies Saints has gorgeous photography (by Bradford Young) and thematically rich production design (by Jade Healy). When Bob's friend Sweetie (Nate Parker), who has been hiding him, watches Bob drive away and then walks back into his yard, the metal gate jams on overgrown vines, an omen, perhaps, of encroaching dangers. Even Sylvie's sky-blue pillowcase has thematic resonance, while the water glass and salt and pepper shakers on Ruth's dining room table have inlaid ridges and swirls, all of which is pure texture. Such things are not accidental.
With this film, his third, after two festival-circuit indies, Lowery is destined to be compared, relentlessly, to director Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Tree of Life), but he may be closer in sensibility to the late Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), who was a master at setting characters against landscapes that were as layered and complex as their emotions. Lowery isn't a Malick, and he's certainly no Kazan, but he's his own man, and a filmmaker to watch.
As Bob, Affleck is flat-out heartbreaking, not least when Bob hesitates before shooting a ruthless man who wants to kill him. For a frighteningly long moment, Bob, baffled and deeply saddened, can only stare at the man, whose own gun is raised. Bob Muldoon proves to be as inept at violence as he is at stealing. His one true gift (and not everyone has it) is for loving.