‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’: A Clumsy Attempt at Storytelling

This film has all the right parts to make a fantastic story, but doesn't know how to put them together.

by Kali Tuttle
Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints tries hard to be a good historical crime dramabut falls flat trying to hit all the right plot points. It had romance, tension, forbidden love, crime, guns, and an attractive young couple that the audience could root for. However, it spent so much time adding in those elements that it didn’t have time to smooth things out.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are able to grasp some emotional depth at times throughout the film, but not enough to grasp the audience. As compelling as the story could have been, it just never reaches that apex.

A Premise with Promise

Reading just the plot summary for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, you’d think you’re in for a heartfelt dramatic tale of love and crime. Perhaps there will be stripes of Bonnie and Clyde mixed in with original plot points. Criminal activity often makes for great films.

But then Bob (Affleck) goes to jail and we are stuck with Ruth’s (Mara) story. Instead of focusing on a daring escape and the passion between two lovers drawing them closer, we are subjected to shots of Rooney Mara looking sad. The town feels bad that Ruth is sad, but they also secretly condemn her for falling in love with a criminal.

Most of the film is dedicated to alienation and depression in a small town. Mara’s character feels like a background character herself. We don’t know much about her and it’s hard to care about her when all we’ve seen her do is cry and stare with fear out the window.

Slow Burn?

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints acts like it’s building up to a satisfying climax, but it when it happens, you don’t realize it’s happened. There’s a whole gunfight, but it’s hard to care about it because we don’t care about any of the characters involved. The only thing we know about Bob is that he is a fugitive and he loves his wife; it’s hard to gauge what kind of man he is based on the limited experience we have with them.

Policeman Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) could have had a compelling arc. He and Ruth develop a strong friendship which later blossoms into something between friendship and romance. Their relationship is murky at best and it’s unclear which relationship the movie wants us to put more faith in. Accepting Patrick and Ruth makes it feel like we’re disregarding Bob, but Bob and Ruth don’t have any chemistry.

The film makes it seem like it’s creating this tender romance between two lovers who can’t be together, but it might as well be about two foreign pen pals who write to each other once a year. Their words of love ring hollow and it’s hard to see a future for the two of them, criminal activity or not.

Paper-Thin People

Ruth and Bob are surface-level people. Ruth’s only motivation in life is her husband and her child; she doesn’t seem to have any interests or personality beyond that. Bob is the same way — all he cares about are his wife and child. In writing, that sounds like a beautiful, passionate motive for both our characters. It should, in theory, make for an entrancing romantic film.

Yet, it doesn’t. We never push past these basic characteristics to find out who these people are. Do they have any hobbies? What made these two fall in love? Is there more than a vague outline of what happens when the two lovers reunite? How long have they been in love?

It’s hard to root for our two characters to get together when we really don’t know why we want them together in the first place. The first time we see the two characters, Ruth is acting sullen while Bob tells her he loves her. Should we even be hoping these two get back together?

A Muddle of Side Characters

Mixed in with our two bland lovers are a smattering of other random characters that we don’t get to know. When Bob returns to his hometown, he has numerous people cover for him. Why do these people cover for him? We don’t know other than hurried explanations about being friends. How are they friends? How long have they been friends? Why are they friends in the first place? These are all questions we don’t really get the answer to.

The character Skerritt (Keith Carradine) seems to have an interesting backstory with Bob and Ruth, but we never really get to know what that story is. The film simply tells us he’s important and then hurries back to the main story. When he is shot and killed at the end of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, it’s hard to feel any sort of emotion toward him because we don’t know who this guy is in the first place.

It’s clear that the film wanted to introduce side characters, but didn’t know how to introduce them or incorporate them into the story. Each side character may have just stepped on-screen, said their name and occupation, and then walked off for how much we get to know about them. Though they could have added a complex dimension to the romance between Ruth and Bob, they are relegated to the background; we never get to know the story beyond Ruth and Bob’s perspective.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali Tuttle @tuttle_kali2.

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