David Lowery's Ballad of Outlaws and Lovers
All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun—or so French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is famously quoted as saying. It's an idea on which many American filmmakers have made their reputations— from Nicholas Ray with They Live By Night (1948) to Joseph H. Lewis with Gun Crazy (1950) to Terrence Malick with Badlands (1973).
It's also the template upon which relative newcomer David Lowery has built his stunning, elegiac ode to the lovers-on-the-run conceit: his latest film Ain't Them Bodies Saints (now open in wider release and available on Video on Demand).
Graciously speaking to me both over the phone from his home in Denton, Texas, and again face-to-face among the pretty people milling about the lobby of New York City's Ace Hotel, the director acknowledged that he was "very consciously" making a film of the girl-and-a-gun variety, which for many American viewers finds its most well-known expression in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
But while Fay Dunaway and Warren Beatty's Bonnie and Clyde slashed a chic bloody streak across rural 1930s Texas in their designer berets and tailored suits in the name of money and headline-grabbing fame, the lovers in Ain't Them Bodies Saints have their sights set on a humbler, yet nobler, purpose: to be together again. Set in Texas in the early-to-mid 1970s, the film opens when Bob and Ruth—played with a sinewy toughness and aching tenderness by Casey Affleck and a plain but resolute earthiness by Rooney Mara—find themselves separated after a botched robbery attempt leads to a violent standoff with the local law enforcement, leaving one officer wounded.
Taking the rap for the robbery and the downed officer, Bob is sent off to prison. But no amount of confinement or distance is going to keep Bob away from Ruth for long, and just how and when Bob will show back up in Ruth's life to whisk her and their baby girl away with him is the question around which the film builds its suspense.
Largely apart from one another the length of the film, Bob and Ruth communicate through letters, which Lowery incorporates throughout the film through their actual text. It's a neat device, and it allows viewers direct access to Bob and Ruth's intimate discourse. Though Lowery admits that epistolary storytelling isn't the sexiest brand of cinema—"There's a saying that the most boring, the most uncinematic image is someone writing, [and] I kind of agree with that," he says—he uses them in Ain't Them Bodies Saints because of the "implication of distance [and] implication of separation" the letters create between Bob and Ruth. (Lowery's inspiration here came from one of his favorite books, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, an epistolary novel he read not too long before he began writing the film's script.)
With Bob out of sight, both aging crime boss Skerritt (a weathered Keith Carradine whose presence in the film echoes nicely with his performance in Robert Altman's 1974 Thieves Like Us, itself a remake of They Live By Night) and the young wounded Sherriff Wheeler (Ben Foster giving a worn-in weary performance that is more than deserving of year-end recognition) make it their duty to watch after Ruth and the child. And while Wheeler's genuinely caring presence adds a certain amount of emotional complication between him and Ruth, Skerritt's interest in helping Ruth may involve some bad looking dudes who Bob did wrong somewhere down the line.