‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ and ‘Hell or High Water’ expand upon the charming thieves in ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’
Bonnie and Clyde weren’t just the people that screwed up the Oscars and Texas isn’t just for barbecue. There’s a rich history of romanticizing the state for its hospitality, its lazy charm, and its criminals. We’ve seen it most recently in 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, but a movie I always think of more as a romance than a crime film is Ain’t Them Bodies Saints by Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery.
Lowery has said that he wanted to “make a movie that felt like a folk song.”
American folk mythology often centers around ne’er-do-wells and gangsters: from Mafia dons to bootleggers to bank robbers, we love our entrepreneurial outlaws. Something about their anti-government bootstrap-pulling rebellion speaks to the deep core of our capitalist American values. Couple that with the close ties some of the more notorious criminals have with the “little people” (and each other) and you’ve started to figure out why Texas is such a popular setting for doomed, romantic crooks.
Cinematically, the most famous example of this is Bonnie and Clyde. Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, the film helped popularize the formula: nonviolent (for as long as possible) thieves just looking for better lives, stealing from the rich and giving to themselves. The relationship held the same weight as the robberies and the film often intertwines the two. Clyde, impotent, attempts to woo his partner the only way he can, which (in a highly symbolic sense) is with crime. Bonnie strokes his gun, marrying southern machismo, sexuality, and criminality in one phallic motion.
Texas in particular comes up in this film because of its ties to the Great Depression. Economic struggle and these romanticized Robin Hoods go hand-in-hand, especially somewhere as deeply resentful of the government as the Lone Star state. Post-Civil War bitterness may have faded, but when a film’s iconography sells us a cowboy hat and a drawl, we know there’s an anti-establishment anger boiling beneath every action.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck as Bob Muldoon and Rooney Mara as Ruth Guthrie, a criminal couple whose story starts with accidental violence and romantic sacrifice. It’s the same story of a loving couple with Texan ethics: as long as they’re looking out for each other, everyone else can burn. Lowery drives these points home with his brooding, bourbon-drenched landscapes that look like they’ve just come in from a long day’s ride. Cinematographer Bradley Young filters and darkens the images to embody a dusty, lived-in aesthetic perfect for situating a family of charming thieves.
A droning banjo twangs and moans underneath the majority of the film, at once a nostalgic cultural marker and an aural irritant. It plays behind a jailing and birth during the same montage, linking the two life changes as an inherently Texan quandary. These aren’t the cold urban dystopias of a crime capital. They’re the unfair crimes of necessity perpetrated by hard-workin’ folks just tryin’ to make ends meet. Of course they’d break out of prison to see their baby. Bob and Ruth make their outlaw story count, especially when it becomes clear that the real drama focuses around keeping their romance alive. The French title of the film literally translates to Lovers of Texas and the Turkish title to A Texas Love Story; the crimes are never the point when they happen in Texas. It’s always the motive and the motive, if you’re not taking part in a Chainsaw Massacre, is always empathetic.
Just look at Hell or High Water, a movie that shares more than just thematic similarities with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. A specifically common thread between the two films of this archetype is Ben Foster, who plays Patrick Wheeler in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the wild card brother in Hell or High Water.
Hell or High Water, the neo-Western about bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine and the aforementioned Foster), certainly wears its Texasness on its dirty denim sleeves. The film’s economic anxiety is an update of Bonnie and Clyde’s Depression-era bank-bashing for the mortgage crisis. Foreclosures abound in every driving montage – each getaway or pursuit montage inevitably passes by a sign for debt relief.
Though their brothers have a bit of folk heroism to their early ventures, the ending of the film undermines any childish notions of playing antiheroes when you realize that people actually, tangibly, and irreversibly get hurt by their crimes. But before that, it’s not an unromantic film. The rugged sex appeal of ragtag Texans with a tight bond going up against an overwhelming force (be it a bank heist or defending the Alamo) is applied in full force. Foster’s character picks up a hotel desk clerk with his nasty handlebar mustache while Pine’s character makes a waitress (Katy Mixon) well, pine for him to the extent that she’s willing to lie to Jeff Bridges’s Texas Ranger. Not that she’d need encouraging because it’s Texas and they don’t like the cops even when they talk like Rooster Cogburn.
The bromance between brothers, built on the foundation of a family ranch, various bickering car rides, and multiple robberies, tweaks the formula of the film in a way just as nuanced as its modern setting. Its chases are sexy and its music (soundtracked by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) features the kind of legendary country that gives it the bonafides it needs to traverse the long deserted expanses between Lubbock and Midland.
Its quiet, contemplative charm exists, like in the films before it, in symbiotic harmony with its criminality. Part of Texas will always be the middle finger, even if it’s a more actionable rebellion that a Linklater philoso-shrug. The lovable gangster resides comfortably on the plains of Texas where southern charm and southern cruelty still somehow hypocritically coincide. If ever you need to be “yes ma’am”-ed while someone waggles a pistol in your face, get your movies just north of the border.