Casey Affleck has appeared in a vast range of movies, but when it comes to the work that defines him as an actor he has long demonstrated a certain penchant for slow-cooked artisanal cinema — for films that revel in their high-mindedness and move at a snail’s pace to prove it. That mode probably kicked in for him when he gave his first astounding and widely acclaimed performance, in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), an art Western that was gripping, at least to some of us, even though it took two hours and 40 minutes to come to a full boil. I can’t say that I was a fan of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” the outlaw-on-the-run domestic badlands drama that starred Affleck in 2013, but that film, too, had a heady aura of deliberation. So, in a more sweeping way, did “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), the brilliantly tragic and lacerating drama that gave Affleck his finest role and won him the Academy Award.
So it makes sense that “Light of My Life,” the first movie Casey Affleck has written and directed, is cut from the same consciously meandering, slow-burn indie-art-house cloth. In theory, it’s a dystopian family-fights-to-survive-in-the-midst-of-oblivion saga, with hints of the sci-fi apocalypse, like “The Road” or “A Quiet Place.” But Affleck has taken this familiar form and carved it down to the barest of bones.
Shot in the Okanaga Valley region of British Columbia, a woodland countryside with the sustained mood of a stark gray late afternoon, “Light of My Life” is about a father, who is never named, played by Affleck, and his daughter, nicknamed Rag (Anna Pniowsky), who’s 11 years old and has a short and thatchy boy’s haircut, because she’s pretending to be his son. The reason for that is that the two are in the middle of a deadly global plague, one that attacks only women, the majority of whom have apparently died off. (Rag was born at the epidemic’s outset.)
“Light of My Life” has an off-the-grid grim cachet, à la “Leave No Trace.” Rag’s mother, played in flashback by Elizabeth Moss, fell victim to the plague. We see a shot of her inspecting the telltale rash on her torso, and except for one other brief scene with two skeletal corpses who’ve been dead for years, that’s as graphic (and specific) as the film gets about its premise.
The genre of desolate contagion you could say “Light of My Life” descends from began 50 years ago, with “Night of the Living Dead,” but in recent times filmmakers have been doing ever more abstract variations on it — like, for instance, “It Comes at Night” (2017), a fatal-infection thriller that basically came down to the members of a family struggling to stay alive in their remote cabin. While that film had some genre trickery, “Light of My Life” takes the ultimate minimal approach to survivalist tension: It’s just a father and daughter, wandering from the woods to an abandoned farmhouse, escaping back into the wilderness, then on to another home (this one occupied by three men who’ve been living there for four years and somehow have food to spare). The history of what’s happened is summed up in a couple of throwaway shots of newspaper headlines, plus a vague anecdote about an encampment where women survivors are housed in a bunker.
“Light of My Life” is like a horror film that refuses to be a horror film, or even a genre film, because it’s got purer things on its mind: the unshakable bond between father and daughter, and the way the hell they’re in strengthens and deepens that connection. Unfortunately, as conceived, that isn’t quite enough to sustain a dawdling two-hour movie. Scene for scene, Affleck does a decent job of directing — his touch is soft, intimate, humane — but he has saddled himself with a script that isn’t entirely there.
The film opens with a 15-minute-long uncut overhead shot of Affleck and newcomer Anna Pniowsky facing each other in their sleeping bags. As Affleck unspools a bedtime story, we have ample chance to observe that it sounds just like the sort of awkward, homespun, made-up-on-the-spot parental whimsy a father tends to improvise — in this case, a fractured-fairy-tale version of Noah’s Ark that includes coded bits and pieces of the father’s own life story. The result, however, is a scene that’s beguiling yet rudderless. You may feel as if you’re drawn, emotionally, to the characters yet are already squirming a bit at the film’s real-time indulgence.
Affleck and Pniowsky get a tender, heartfelt, but rather passive rapport going. He lectures her (a lot), and she’s not afraid to tweak him back. But there’s never much conflict between them. They’ve got each other’s backs, which is fine, but that robs the movie of its key potential source of tension. None of the other characters the two run into are particularly well-developed, though the veteran actor Tom Bower, as a Bible thumper who has lost everything he cares about, has presence.
There’s a reason, I think, why there’s so little of impactful dramatic value going on in “Light of My Life.” The title is a clue. It seems to belong on a different film (a biopic of Debby Boone?), but it’s meant to testify to the devotion this father feels toward his daughter. If Casey Affleck does nothing else in this movie, he’s showing off his knightly valor, his capacity for empathy, his drive to understand and defend the female in his care. But you have to wonder if there’s an element of spin to that. Around the time he was up for the Oscar, Affleck got raked over the coals for his own alleged misdeeds with women. And though it didn’t scuttle his awards triumph, the karma of those accusations lingered. For a guy who often plays moody misfits, Affleck has crafted “Light of My Life” to be the story of a gruffly protective saint. At the same time, the fantasy of a fatal disease that attacks only women plays, at moments, like a borderline punitive comment on that whole topic. It’s the “Handmaid’s Tale” of pandemics.