“This was in Texas,” reads the worrisome title card that opens Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The phrasing girds you for a pretentious, self-aware Art Film, and the opening scenes, which feature lots of swaying fields and golden sunlit vistas, set off wailing Terrence Malick rip-off alarms.
But wait. Malick is certainly a major influence on writer-director David Lowery’s tale of two Texas outlaws in the early 1970s. The narrative is elliptical, the mood calm and contemplative, and voiceovers abound. The movie is a tone poem, but it is also accessible and moving in ways that Malick’s films often aren’t. And it has an actual narrative, too: During a shoot-out with police after a robbery, the pregnant Ruth (Rooney Mara) wounds a state trooper, Patrick (Ben Foster). But her lover Bob (Casey Affleck), the father of her baby, takes the fall for her and gets sentenced to 25 years to life. She vows to wait for him. But he’s not willing to sit still that long to meet his daughter and reunite with Ruth.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which was shot by the gifted cinematographer Bradford Young, conveys a deep sense of place. The rural Texas setting emanates an aura of tranquility and quiet, menacing danger that impacts the lives of the characters (much of the film was actually filmed in Shreveport, La., but the illusion is complete). After five failed attempts, Bob finally breaks out of prison and begins a long and treacherous journey home. But in the intervening years, Patrick has become a constant presence in Ruth’s life, careful never to impose himself on her romantically but always keeping a protective eye on her (he’s unaware she’s the one who actually shot him).
Mara’s luminous performance as the conflicted Ruth captures the emotional turmoil of a woman who knows she should make the right choice for the sake of her child, but her heart and her outlaw spirit lie with Bob. Keith Carradine is terrific as Skerritt, a friendly, easygoing shopkeeper who happens to be the town’s crime boss. When the fugitive Bob drops in on him for help, Skerritt warns him to stay away from Ruth: There are men with guns looking for him. But Bob, like Odysseus, will not be deterred.
While his more famous brother Ben has been hogging the media’s attention, Affleck has grown into a diverse character actor capable of playing everything from street-smart hero ( Gone Baby Gone) to sadistic murderer ( The Killer Inside Me).
In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Affleck reveals a vulnerability and tenderness that we haven’t seen from him before. Bob’s love for Ruth is so pure and true, it becomes the engine that drives the movie. Lowery has a lyrical style of storytelling that is delicate and subtle yet suffused with emotion and atmosphere. It’s gentle and pointed at the same time. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints wafts over you like a dream, leaving behind a lovely, melancholy trace that hurts.