Bowing at Sundance, David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” landed with the excitement of a bold new voice, and yet, there’s also something undeniably old-fashioned in his approach, suggesting a lost artifact freshly unearthed from the 1970s, or the origin story behind a half-forgotten folk ballad about criminal lovers whom prison couldn’t keep apart. Slow as molasses but every bit as rich, Lowery’s gorgeously shot third feature (following two tiny indies) may be too lyrical for mainstream expectations, though strong reviews and a star cast should make this romantic deconstruction of classic outlaw pictures a powerful indie player.
Opening with a Terrence Malick-indebted reverie, in which Texas hooligans Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) drift through tall grass while mumbling their dreams to one another, the film revels in their naive young passion as long as possible, withholding its curious title (stolen from a country song) a full 11 minutes before skipping forward to face the consequences. Unlike the Old West legends who went down in a blaze of glory, the central couple have the good sense to lay down their weapons after shooting a cop. (Their accomplice isn’t so lucky, taking a fatal bullet in the standoff at an abandoned farmhouse.)
Though his g.f. pulled the trigger, Bob takes the blame, receiving word mere months into his 25-year prison sentence that he’s the father of a baby girl. From that point forward, Lowery puts “Badlands” aside and strikes out on his own, constructing a low-key love triangle in which Ruth must choose between her baby daddy and handsome sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) — the same man she wounded four years earlier.
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Both men are chivalrous in their respective ways: Bob for going to prison in her place, and Patrick for regularly checking in on Ruth and her daughter, Sylvie (twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith), now just shy of 4. Solemnly embracing her single motherhood, Ruth refuses to visit Bob in prison, but hasn’t managed to move on. Meanwhile, Bob has tried to escape five times, and yet, even he must realize Sylvie’s arrival makes it impossible to pick up where the couple left off.
Citing a “higher calling,” Bob busts out (the sixth time’s the charm) and leisurely makes his way back to tiny Meridian, Texas, a town seemingly frozen in time — like so much of the film, whose setting aspires to the mythic, but whose wardrobe and cars reveal it to be the ’70s. Relying on two old friends (Nate Parker and Keith Carradine) to maintain his cover, Bob manages to evade the law, unaware that darker forces are out to get him. Like Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” these killers seem to have been manifested straight from hell, and it’ll take both Bob and Patrick to ensure Ruth is safe.
Those keen on Coen brothers-style confrontations had better look elsewhere, however. Though they are clearly an inspiration, Lowery’s impressionistic approach feels looser relying on pretty pictures (courtesy of Bradford Young’s resplendent, honey-toned lensing) and a swelling string score to create a hypnotic effect. Taking a cue (as well as Carradine) from 1974’s “Thieves Like Us,” in which Robert Altman chose to leave the camera parked outside with the getaway driver while the characters ran in to do their thing, Lowery seems determined to resist the cliches of the lovers-on-the-run genre. Though he originally conceived “Saints” as an action picture, when it came time to write it, nearly all the expected setpieces — the robberies, the jailbreak, even the climactic shootout — melted away. What remains is something far more lyrical, almost feminine in its sensibility, presenting situations in which auds are encouraged to consider the characters’ deeply conflicted feelings.
In this arena, Affleck and Mara manage their cotton-mouthed accents reasonably well, but haven’t mastered the specific skill “Saints” so keenly requires — namely, externalizing the emotional intricacies their characters can never find the words to say aloud. Foster, on the other hand, does this better than almost anyone of his generation, and while his performance here seems notably restrained, turmoil clearly churns just below the surface, which of course, is precisely what the pic is going for.