The ruminative drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints can make you wonder exactly how much dignity pop culture should afford to impoverished outlaws. Comedies like Raising Arizona and reality shows like "America's Dumbest Criminals" play up small-town stick-up artists as drawling, accident prone buffoons. The late Elmore Leonard managed to present credible crooks with humor but not condescension.
Higher-brow works like Ain't Them Bodies Saints take a more idealistic approach. In art-house films or ambitious novels, criminals come across as existential heroes who carry the weight of mankind's sins or replay archetypal human conflicts. The homespun nobility sometimes seems out of proportion to the actual crimes involved: Anyone who puts others at risk for selfish motives should forfeit a certain amount of respect.
In Ain't Them Bodies Saints, writer/director David Lowery emulates the likes of Terrence Malick and filmmakers of the 1970s who all but canonize noble outlaws. If you question the reverence with which the director treats his lead characters, Saints' foundation becomes very unsteady indeed, even though, on a scene-by-scene basis, the film displays top-notch craftsmanship.
Saints takes place in the Texas Hill Country at an unspecified time. The Hollywood Reporter estimated the early 1970s based on the makes of the automobiles, but it could be any year between World War II and the proliferation of the cell phone. The first scene introduces a pair of star-crossed lovers in a long, gorgeously sun-drenched shot, as Ruth (Rooney Mara) tries to walk away from Bob (Casey Affleck). We discover that she's angry at the sweet-talking young man because his ambitions for a better life hinge on criminal activity, but she loves him too much to quit him, especially since she's pregnant.
Lowery offers an elliptical presentation of Bob's crimes. We see Ruth in a car, watching Bob and his partner turn a corner with guns drawn. Cut to the partner bleeding out in the back of a vehicle during a police chase. Cut to Ruth and Bob in a farmhouse, surrounded by police. Ruth fires a weapon and, to her surprise, hits police officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). The couple surrenders and Bob takes the rap for the shooting.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints suggests that Lowery could have a great film in him. In addition to the luminous cinematography, he shows a command of using camera movement to build tension and cultivates atmosphere through edits that withhold information. The soft-spoken cast gives strong performances that always suggest that the characters are trying, and half-succeeding, to keep a lid on overpowering emotions. He effectively keeps the reins on Foster, who can take method-actor choices over the top when given a chance, but here gives an enormously sympathetic portrayal.
Affleck conveys Bob's general likability but falters at bringing out the role's deeper dimensions. When he remarks, "I used to be the devil, but now I'm just a man" he doesn't convey the inner demons or depths of passions that would make the character compellingly flawed. The film gives Bob (and Ruth, to a lesser extent) a pass for misdeeds that include armed robbery and car-jacking. Rather than weep for their tragic romance, you're more likely to feel that they deserve what they get, and you want to remind them, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time."