Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is very much akin to films made in the 70s and 80s, like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Badlands, or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller or 3 Women. It all feels like a dream, but with suspense and the feeling of real consequences. It has the near-Biblical feeling of Days of Heaven, and the refracted anti-Western sensibility of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. [Actor Keith Carradine, who plays Skerritt in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (a character who very much provides the link to the wild west) even had his first film role in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.] Bob Muldoon of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints sees himself in the lineage of legends of the West, in a world where it is both feasible to have such a conceit, but also increasingly difficult to sustain. He goes through life with an arrogance that nothing will stop him from getting what he wants, not unlike Martin Sheen’s Kit in Badlands.
Bob and his girlfriend Ruth are a 70s-era homegrown Bonnie and Clyde who end up in a shoot-out with the police. When Ruth shoots a police officer, Bob takes the blame, and asks her to wait for him. He writes her beautiful heartfelt letters from jail that we hear in voice-over, such as “Dear Ruth, I dreamed about you again last night. I hold your face in my mind. I think your hair getting longer. I think about your belly getting bigger. I think about our baby girl.” His relationship with Ruth, “it was always me and Ruth,” as if their own life has taken on legendary proportions in his own mind.
Except since he went to jail Ruth has had their baby, Sylvie. This disrupts their bond, and is replaced with a stronger bond, between Ruth and Sylvie. Ruth has been living with this new reality for four years, but cannot convey it to Bob. Ruth and Sylvie enjoy a simple existence living in a suburban residential neighborhood. It is difficult to imagine the old west mythology Bob imagines himself a part of existing within the same world as this neighborhood, and that contradiction lends a timelessness to the movie.
When he escapes from prison and makes his way back to Ruth, he speaks of it as a hero’s journey, “walking barefoot over mountains,” Yet Ruth knows that things cannot be the same, because he comes back to her, it will upset the order with Sylvie. Meanwhile, she quietly watches the police officer she shot years ago, and he quietly watches her too, and offers help when she needs it.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels like a new classic, with more to uncover and contemplate upon each viewing. It plays at Images Cinema Friday, 9/20 through Thursday, 9/26 (Fruitvale Station is also playing this week, so please check the schedule before heading out.