A man breaks out of jail to reach his one, true love and meet his daughter for the first time.
Many a country song and the occasional movie have been built on that melodramatic frame. But it earns an elegiac treatment in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a spare, subdued Texas tale that wears its worn premise with style.
Casey Affleck is Bob Muldoon, a low-rent outlaw whose devotion to Ruth (Rooney Mara) is such that you kind of wonder why the guy won’t go straight, just for her.
Within the first five minutes of the film, we figure out why. She drawls “I don’t want to go to jail” and “That shack ain’t no home” and “I think I’m gonna have a baby.” Ruth drives the getaway truck for Bob and his pal Freddy (Kentucker Audley), only they don’t get away. Freddy dies in the shootout, Ruth shoots a deputy (Ben Foster) and Bob takes the rap for her.
He goes to prison and writes her long, aching letters that narrate the film. She has their baby and tries to start over, only that deputy who doesn’t realize she’s the one who shot him takes to coming around, looking in on them and buying the little girl, Sylvie, presents.
Then Bob breaks out.
Editor turned writer-director David Lowery follows Bob’s quest to get back to Ruth, the obstacles he faces and the complications that await him back in tiny Meridian, Texas. The action — which involves the legacy of the old man who raised him (Keith Carradine) — is less interesting than the characters, who are layered and given full-blooded performances by the cast. Affleck, in particular, has never been more natural in a role.
They could have set this modern story in the Dust Bowl, and Mara’s rawboned features would have been right at home. She embodies a kind of edgy rural allure that makes the deputy’s awkward courtship scenes feel just right.
And Carradine brings a marvelous weariness to a man who feels responsible for some of this and wants to make things work out, but who can’t see that happening with Bob on the run and making his way back to Ruth.
There’s nothing new here. Ryan Gosling’s The Place Beyond the Pines recently covered some of the same ground. But it’s all written, spoken, photographed and edited with such care — the soundtrack features violins, twangy string music and hand-claps — that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels like a fresh and poetic treatment of a prosaic story that should be utterly worn out by now.