It's a half hour past 9 on a chilly Thursday night at the Queens County Farm Museum. Dozens of New York City denizens are sitting in rows of metal folding chairs digging into the plush grass beneath them. The property is almost an hour's ride from Manhattan, only accessible via car, LIRR, or a million transfers of buses and subways. Everyone here wants to be here. Here, that is, at this event for the Rooftop Films Summer Series, where writer/director David Lowery is about to premiere his critically acclaimed independent film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints.
A chorus of crickets on the farm can be heard over the score as the spotlight dims to reveal the title card on screen followed by the inscription dead center: "This was in Texas."
Set in the Lone Star countryside in the 1970s, the film tells of the disrupted romance between a pair of outlaws, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and his wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara). However, don't expect this to be a Bonnie-and-Clyde-type film that chases the ragtag team around in their heyday. Rather, it's a meditation on life after the gunpowder and dust settles.
Four years after the stand-off that left a police officer shot and saw Bob willingly take the fall for his wife, Ruth is living a quiet life with her nearly 4-year-old daughter. And there's another man in her life now, Sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), the same man she wounded all those years ago. Despite their violent shared history, he's taken by her, and has appointed himself her unofficial protector. Which is why he breaks the news to her first: Bob Muldoon has successfully escaped prison, and he's coming back for his family.
Immediately, the wheels turn in her head as she debates whether or not she could runaway with her husband. It breaks the heart of the lovestuck Sheriff.
Meanwhile, Bob, true to his word, is hitchhiking his way across the plains to reunite with his love. In his mind, he's got the story played out: he'd take his family away and they'd start a new life together somewhere far away from their small town of Meridian. He'd open a shop, do something decent with his life, grow old with Ruth and their daughter. But that's Bob. Often speaking about himself in the third person, he mythologizes everything in his life and makes himself the character of his own folktale. Even the story of his escape is a fiction. He's omnipresent in the film, through the worried looks of Ruth, Patrick, and everyone else in the town, even when he's not sharing scenes with them. And that's a testament to Casey Affleck's harrowing performance as the idealist of a character David Lowery set out to create.
But nothing goes as planned and what becomes of the film is a well-worn story about love, responsiblity, and ultimately, forgiveness.
Down to its soundtrack, which uses a breathtaking blend of violin, piano, and hand-clapping as the main score, Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a sweeping, picturesque masterpiece recognized by critics, audiences, and festival programmers alike.
"We all really love it for its sort of searing intensity and it being kind of an action movie or revenge drama that isn't filled with a lot of explosions and shoot-outs, but just has this constant slow burn of desperation and intensity to it," said Mark Rosenberg, founder of Rooftop Films.
Complex had the chance to sit down with Lowery, as well as Rooney Mara and Ben Foster, to not only discuss the making of the film, but the mythology behind each of the characters and the themes central to the remarkable story.
As told to Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
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