“This was in Texas.”
Then the back of a woman’s head, her hair glinting with sun. She’s walking away, through a field with dying grass and trees with branches like cracked bones.
Off-screen, a man’s voice: “Ruth. Hey, Ruth.” His tone is searching, not urgent.
Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie are in the midst of a fight. Ruth is angry, but not walking away so fast that he can’t catch up with her. Bob asks her where she’s going. Grabs for her elbow. She flares at his touch. She’s upset because he’d talked to a friend about going off on his own. He laughs.
“When I say on my own,” he says, “I mean you and me.”
Bob is tall and solid, silent, the kind of person you could picture standing at the edge of a room, quietly assessing. Ruth is fiery but small and fragile. Both seem coiled, as if their bodies demand the other’s.
Bob’s words don’t sway Ruth. She spits out:
“Are you going to leave me? Because I will leave you first.”
But her armor can’t last long. He laughs. He pulls her toward him, into his chest. She tells him she’s pregnant. She doesn’t want to go to jail. She doesn’t want a man that won’t be there. That night, sitting in the back of a truck, waiting for their friend and accomplice to arrive, Bob lays with his head in her lap and sings to her belly.
I was born in Texas. My dad had just gotten a job in Mississippi, but he and my mom had been living in Portland for the last half decade and their insurance didn’t reach that far east. He dropped my mom off at his aunt and uncle’s home in Fort Worth on his way to Jackson.
It was the last destination on a trip across the country in their VW van. Along the way, they’d stopped off in Las Vegas to get remarried, eight months pregnant with me. Two years earlier, after less than a year of marriage, my mom had gone to the back of a bookstore and torn out the last page in a “do it yourself” divorce book. She’d gotten into a low-residency nursing program; with their combined income, they weren’t eligible for financial aid, but she couldn’t afford the program without it.
For the rest of that month, my mom floated in my great-aunt’s pool, ballooned with me. When she went into labor, my dad hopped a plane and was there before I came out. Even back then, I took my time to get places.
This is one of my favorite stories. Not just because it’s my origin story (which does help), but because it’s not about “will they or won’t they.” It’s about “how.”
Every movie has its own vocabulary, and in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints it’s declared within minutes. The world of this 1970s Texas is one of goldenrod, unframed fields and crayon-thick twilight. Unbounded roads and broken-down houses, slats boarded across doorways. Dust swirling through slanted light.
Events happen quickly in the first fifteen minutes. Ruth tells Bob she’s pregnant, and then they’re caught hiding behind an old home’s door frame with their friend, Freddy, while the police fire at them. Freddy takes a bullet. Ruth shoots and hits a deputy in the shoulder. By the time Bob’s whispering “Wait for me” at Ruth, as the policemen mount the steps and he’s readying himself to take the fall for his pregnant wife, the audience has barely had a chance to breathe.
Ruth and Bob are handcuffed and walked through that dying front yard toward the squad cars. Even as the policemen try to pull them apart, their chests arch toward the other. As if their hearts have become magnetized.
This movie picks up where others might leave off. We’re not given Bob and Ruth’s origin story. We’re given their aftermath.
I don’t remember the south. By the time my memory kicked in, I was living in the Pacific Northwest. But I am deeply familiar with that bodily need to be within weeds. For the first eighteen years of my life, the bottoms of my feet were callused, my legs used to pushing through bramble. My backyard was half an acre of grass, and then beneath that, four acres of untended wood.
Sometimes in the late afternoon, I’d go to the bottom of the yard and walk down a path, toward where the shadows grew thicker between trees. I’d taunt myself with how close I could get, alone, before turning and running back up, terrified that some rustling (surely only a rabbit or a bird) was a coyote or, worse, the mountain lion we were told had nested between branches.
My best friend back then lived down on the other side. Less than a mile that way. If I pushed straight through the wilderness, I could be on her front porch within fifteen minutes. Once, I got it in my head that we should pass letters to each other in a cleaned out popcorn tin I wedged between the ground and a fallen log, its bark covered with moss.
I can’t remember what I wrote in the letter I put in that tin, since I saw her every morning and afternoon on our bus anyway, and I don’t know if she ever put in a response, because I never thought to check it again. For all I know, it’s still there.
Four years later, Bob escapes. He pushes his way through forests, jacks a car, hops a train. Finds his way to a bar run by his friend, Sweetie, with a small room on the second floor he can hide out in. When Sweetie asks how he did it, Bob shrugs. “I just walked out,” he says. Even here, the story isn’t about the escape, but what he’s escaping toward.
He writes Ruth a letter, delivered fourth hand. “Dear Ruth,” he writes. His jagged handwriting now familiar across the screen. He wants them to leave together. The three of them. Bob, Ruth, and the four-year-old daughter, Sylvie, he has yet to meet.
By now, the love between Bob and Ruth has become muscle memory. The couple exists for each other through scar tissue: recollection and lead-scratched letters. Their love is like a vine wrapped around a tree, then eaten by its bark. Preserved, while everything around it ages.
Bob makes his way through town, asking after Ruth, trying to case their escape without getting on the police’s radar. He goes to check on Skerritt, Freddy’s father. Skerritt has since set Ruth and Sylvie up in a small, safe home, where he can watch out for them. Without Freddy to father, he’s turned his attentions to Ruth. He threatens Bob, says if he ever comes near those girls, that will be the last of him. Skerritt knows that not only is the law after Bob, but there are also three men haunting him, searching for recompense for some past harm.
Bob barely registers Skerritt’s threat. He is slowly, shudderingly, reentering Ruth’s orbit.
Ruth has more than her heart to consider. There’s Sylvie now, and the bundle of kittens they’ve adopted. Her world has become fragile. But Bob can’t understand this. He hasn’t helped raise Sylvie. He doesn’t know what it is to worry about a small thing like her. All he knows is his love for Ruthie, and his unwavering trust that that can be enough.
This is what we have to understand. Without this love, nothing would have happened. It’s the reason he’s put in jail, it’s the reason for his escape.
But their new lives, built on memories, must bend beneath the weight of the present.
Years later, and now I’m in New York. There are no unframed fields here, no unbounded roads. No landscapes stretch out past the edges of the frame. All New York has is edges.
When I first saw Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, it was the middle of a Saturday and there were only three others in the small theater at the IFC. One woman, seated three rows below me, took out a banana while the opening credits rolled and slowly, too humanly, picked her way through it.
Movies have become a solace for me in this city. A way to get away from the noise of other people. I’ve been accused of being too sensitive to everything—the fervor, the emotions, the needs and elbows and smells. All of it. Going to movies alone has become an easy pill. Two hours away from concrete and stares.
I’d heard about the movie months earlier, and had been looking forward to it since. Something about the trailer, the colors and sounds, clued me in. This would be a movie I’d love. This would be a movie I wouldn’t stop thinking about for months. And my instincts were right.
The movie’s vocabulary was one I understood. That sense of exterior. That space and room to breathe and want. Something in it rang like a tuning fork against my bone.
This was in Texas.
That Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a grandchild of Badlands and other westerns is clear, but it grows on their tradition. There are gun fights and outlaws and tracking shots during the golden hour. But Ruth and Bob don’t share the ruthless glee of Bonnie and Clyde, or the melancholic psychopathy of Sissy and Martin in Badlands. They do what they do out of necessity.
A landscape like Texas’s—so vast and demanding—forces a person to do something inside it, to somehow mark off their territory.
And Ruth isn’t Bob’s accomplice. She’s his partner. We see this when Ruth goes out to some boys shooting a pellet gun in the street. She takes it from them, and rather than scolding them, she slots the gun against her shoulder, aims, and fires. The gun ticks off, somewhere down the street. A pure, lightweight smile flits across her face. Muscle memory.
It would be so easy for her to say okay. She would know what to pack, how to hide away in the evening and leave when no one is looking. For her, doing that would be like breathing.
I wonder how I’ll feel when I look back at these months in five or ten years. I’ve begun to feel that pit of yearning in my stomach, the kind that makes me throw away trash bag upon trash bag of extra possessions, if only so I can feel light enough to eventually say goodbye. I’ve already begun to shed my surroundings. Every night, I fall asleep daydreaming of the trees I could be near, the overgrown grass I could push my heels into.
Something will change, but I don’t know when or how it will. It’s not a comfortable feeling, knowing you’ll only realize later that you’ve lived through an ending, rather than a beginning.
Most of this movie comes from a similar place of waiting.
“I’ve been storing up all these things,” Ruth says. “Sitting up at night, thinking of all the things I’ll say to him. Except now I have all these things, I don’t know where I’d start.” She’s sitting on the couch, in the home she should have shared with Bob. But it’s not their home, and she doesn’t know if they could survive him walking through the front door. “I’ve been saving every sentence,” she says. “I haven’t slept in four years, and I’m tired.”
The title, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, manages to simultaneously suggest a vernacular, a presence, and a mythos. It’s a story about bodies and survival and need.
It’s a lack. A ballad. A bruise.
While Bob gets ready to go see Ruth, he talks to Sweetie. He buttons up his shirt, chews on a toothpick, examines his jaw in the mirror. His words come out easily, almost as if he’d been practicing the speech daily in his cell, learning the words against his tongue until it would be time to use them.
“Sylvie will know me without looking at me,” Bob says. “And Ruthie, by god, she’ll feel me coming down the street. We always just been two parts of the same.” He talks about their fights, how Ruth would throw herself around like a hummingbird and he’d just sit there and laugh until she finished.
“I’d say, Ruth, you can scream at me til your voice is gone, but it don’t make much difference, because when you’re all done screaming, it’s just gonna be me and you sitting in this room. And she said, you’re right. It’s always just going to be the two of us.”
And no matter what happened, it was.