Ain’t Them Bodies Saints Review: Molasses in Film Form

When balanced with smart character development and emotional resonance, a slow and brooding plot can often make for some interesting films.In the case of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, however, slow and brooding is all we get, without any of the meaningful development or emotional interest in between. Thus, what sets out to be a smart and poignant film results in a tedious exercise that demands patience without rewarding it in any meaningful way.

Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and her boyfriend Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) are two young lovers who find themselves in a precarious situation. After a run-in with the law in which the pregnant Guthrie shoots a police officer, Muldoon takes the blame and goes to prison in her place, allowing for Ruth to be acquitted so she can have their child and raise her in freedom. After four years of exchanging letters and dealing with their own personal troubles, Bob escapes prison in hopes of finding his wife and daughter he’s never met, while Ruth begins to question whether or not she’s ready to see him again.

It’s easy to compare this film to that of Bonnie and Clyde, but unlike the bombastic scenes in the 1967 classic,the action in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is used as a transition phase between the more thoughtful and evocative quiet moments. Shootouts, arguments, and inner turmoil are often depicted well, but the film focuses more on how characters handle the aftermath of these events than the action itself.

This would be fine, had the film’s story been set up well and executed in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, much of what takes place on screen throughout Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels ancillary and self-indulgent on the part of the director, whose admittedly impressive visual flairs are used all too often to add substance to an otherwise hollow film. There are long scenes that never amount to anything in the overall story, characters whose motivations or purpose are never fully realized, and emotional arcs that are completely unsatisfying and unconvincing, resulting in a supremely dull experience.

Sadly, there are traces of brilliance that could have made the film so much more meaningful. When Bob is trying to get in touch with Ruth and meet with her while still on the run, we see Ruth begin to struggle with her feelings for him and whether or not they’re still as strong as they once were. This idea of growing apart, of losing some of the emotional connection with a person could have been really interesting, but ultimately felt cheap and forced because I never cared about the two in the first place. Bob might be on the run from the law, but there’s rarely ever any tension involved in his escape due to townspeople being more than willing to help him and the , again, the fact that I had no connection or real reason to care about Bob in the first place. Even at the film’s dramatic and tragic end, the only emotion I felt at the end was one of relief for having finally reached the end of this tiresome and pretentious exercise. There will be some who find merit and meaning in this film’s diluted and directionless storytelling, but even with a relatively short 1 hour, 45-minute running time I felt every second tick painfully by.

It’s true that the sparse soundtrack of banjos, guitar, and other contemporary instruments serves to accompany many of the scenes well, and much of the visual quality of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is impressive to say the least. A nice blend of extreme close-ups, panoramic scenery shots, quiet, introspective scenes, and even the convincing set design made for a film that was definitely a visual treat in the same vein as Terrence Malick.

But all the quality visuals in the world don’t make up for a lackluster story, and the plodding plot momentum of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints made for many a frustrated moment of glancing at the clock and watching precious time melt away into this self-indulgent and bloated arthouse romp that fails to engage.