We’re a nation that loves a good crime story, and though we usually root for the good guy, we also have an insatiable love for the dark side. The husband-and-wife robbers of David Lowery’s new film, Ain’t them Bodies Saints, which premiered on Friday, continue a long American tradition of loving outlaws.
Hollywood can bank on movies about cops, doctors, and lawyers, but there are also violent criminals that crowds will not only accept, but admire. Rapists? No. No one forgives a sex criminal. Serial killers? We’ll root for them if they kill evildoers! Drug dealers? Sure, as long as they’re pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, or better yet, dying of cancer. But the most celebrated outlaw of all has to be the bank robber, whose presence in hit films stretches all the way back to the first silent movies, like The Great Train Robbery, and whose role in popular mythology spans Robin Hood, western heroes like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the bank robbers of the Great Depression.
The idea of an unjust social system is inherent in our glamorization of outlaw culture. Ain't Them Bodies Saints is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a dark period in American culture that featured the killings of 1968, the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal, and which gave rise to Hollywood outlaw stories such as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
In Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, a pair of reluctant thieves on the run in Texas. Ruth gets pregnant, and the pair goes on a crime spree to raise money for their new kid. When things go wrong, Ruth shoots a sheriff’s deputy, but Bob takes the fall for it and is sent off to prison, while Ruth goes home to raise their baby. The plot thickens when, years later, Bob breaks out and starts making his way back home. While Bob was in prison, Ruth and her child were befriended by the very deputy (Ben Foster) she shot. Despite Bob’s longing for home, it’s clear that nothing but trouble is waiting for him there, and the plot builds to a predictably bloody climax.
Lowery has said that he wanted to make a folk tale, a modern-day western. The story gives Lowry a chance to evoke the feel of rural Texas, his native state. While many reviews cite Malick and Altman, this tale of rural outlaws reminds me most of the Bennett Miller’s Capote, the film about elite Manhattanite author Truman Capote's trip to rural 1950s Kansas to research the story of two brothers arrested for killing a family. Part of the brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Capote is how well he shows Capote’s private thrill in the gritty tale of good boys gone bad, which he had to hide under a veil of public shock and dismay at their crimes.
Lowery's film is entirely fictional, enabling him to place his characters’ violence in a context of true love and desperate times, rather than public judgment and moralizing. As long as we remain fascinated by violence and the criminal mind, there’ll be a place for romanticized outlaws: the desperate bank robber, the working-class drug dealer, and the twisted but charming serial killer. They thrill us, perhaps because they have the audacity to take the paths we’d take only in our darkest dreams.