“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” by Texas filmmaker David Lowery, is a moody, achingly emotional murder ballad of a movie, a plumb-crazy romance played out against the timeless backdrop of the American West and the headstrong outlaws, do-right lawmen and stoic Southern belles who inhabit it.
In other words, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is the latest in a long line of cinematic stories about crime, doomed love and the wages of self-deception. But Lowery manages to subvert the very cliches he so self-consciously deploys. As much as he clearly owes something to the work of Robert Altman, Terrence Malick and the Coen brothers, he’s also forging a style that’s just as indebted to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, as well as to the South’s raw-boned folk hymns and talking blues. A work of surpassing beauty, both visually and in its lyrically straightforward dialogue, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” resounds with its own kind of music, at once familiar and brand new.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play Ruth and Bob, who are arguing as “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens but are clearly passionately bound up with one another. When a crime and subsequent shoot-out land Bob in jail, he vows to bust out and, on his sixth try, does, traveling to reunite with Ruth and their 4-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, Ruth has made a home for herself in the small town of Meridien, where she lives under the watchful eye of a town boss named Skerritt (Keith Carradine) and a benevolent sheriff named Patrick (Ben Foster).
As the object of so many men’s obsessive attention — one passionate, one possessory, one protective — Ruth could easily become merely a passive vessel for others’ projections. But Mara has proven herself to be cinema’s most accomplished actress in creating riveting dynamism by remaining utterly, solemnly still. Affleck, who gets to spin some evocative yarns as a supreme self-mythologizer on the lam, handles Lowery’s gorgeous monologues with a similar degree of compelling simplicity.
Photographed by Bradford Young with his signature brand of richness and sensitivity, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” looks marvelous, its 1970s setting set aglow in tones of a memory-burnished yesteryear. But what sets Lowery’s work apart lies less on the surface than in what roils beneath it, a moral imagination that challenges predictable notions of right, wrong, vengeance and reckoning. The film’s most breathtaking moment doesn’t come by way of the star-crossed leads, but by Foster’s Patrick, who in a pivotal encounter upends expectations both about his character and the Texas-noir genre itself.
Compared with Malick’s recent excursions into empty pictorialism and fuzzy-headed philosophical meditations, Lowery’s elaboration on the theme feels more rigorously grounded, even as it clearly shares a cinematic bloodline. With plain-spoken poetics, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” harkens back to one golden age, while suggesting that, thanks to Lowery, Young and a burgeoning generation of fine actors, another one might be at hand.
R. At Landmark E Street CInema. Contains gun violence, some profanity and adult themes. 105 minutes.