“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”: Do not forsake me oh my darling

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“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:45, three and a half stars out of four.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has bank robberies, but we don’t see them. It has a prison break, but we don’t see it. When a major characters gets shot, we . . . but you know where this is going.

David Lowery’s confident second feature plays the notes behind the notes of “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Badlands” and other period dramas about couples on the lam. While he wears his ’70s filmmaking influences on his sleeves, “Saints” is no pastiche, but an eloquent mood piece that leaves room for improvisation from the actors and introspection from the audience. Read my interview with Lowery here.

The first chapter of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” would be the last chapter of most movies of its ilk. Somewhere in Texas, around 1970, outlaw couple Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are cornered by the police. Bullets are exchanged, the pair is captured, but none of the plot developments matter quite as much as one archetypal moment, when as Bob and Ruth are led away by sheriff’s deputies, they lean into each other hard, desperately hard, knowing it may be the last time they’ll ever touch.

Move ahead four years, and Bob is still in jail, writing letters to Ruth. Ruth is free to take care of her four-year-old daughter, under the close watch of paternal shopkeeper Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who may be tougher than everyone else in Texas put together. Watch that scene where three mangy convicts come into Skerritt’s shop, and notice how its three armed cons who seem skittish.

Unable to be apart from Ruth any more, Bob finally breaks out of prison, and takes the long odyssey back home to reclaim Ruth. But he may not find the Ruth he left behind — being a mother seems to have changed her, made her more careful and responsible, and she’s reluctantly accepting the friendship of a kindly sheriff (Ben Foster). Whether the fact that she shot this sheriff in that standoff four years ago may or may not come up.

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Foster, who often plays loose cannons on screen, is effective as a good-hearted but not simple man, while Affleck infuses Bob with unwavering, perhaps unwise devotion. (Although the parts are superficially similar, he’s a long ways away from the polite sociopath of “The Killer Inside Me.”) But the film really turns on Mara, who completely immerses herself into the flinty, wary Ruth. You’re always wondering what she’s thinking, what’s she going to do.

Lowery gives these actors lots of room to move — he’s a disciple of Robert Altman in his believe that movies are made in the moments you didn’t expect to find. But he’s also got some Terrence Malick on him, and “Saints” is a gorgeous, sepia-toned feast for the eyes, a faded photograph to a vanishing West and an approach to filmmaking that fell out of fashion decades ago. But “Ain’t These Bodies Saints” brings it back to life again, and makes it glorious.

Interview with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director (and not Cracker frontman) David Lowery

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David Lowery shares my pain.

The writer-director of the elegiac period drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and I both share a name with a musician much more well-known than us.

“It’s just something that over the past five or six years has become a frequent thing,” he said in a phone interview from New York City a couple of weeks ago. “I had to change the bio on my Twitter account to read, ‘Not the one who sings.’”

Lowery has never met his namesake, although, based on the reaction that “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is getting, maybe someday the Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman will have to change his Twitter bio to read “Not the one who makes elegiac modern Westerns that have been compared to Malick and Altman.”

“Saints,” which opens in Madison this Friday at Sundance Cinemas, is a love story in which the lovers are only together at the very beginning and very end of the film. It’s also a crime story that takes place after the crimes have already occurred.

The film opens with husband-and-wife outlaws Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) cornered by police in Texas and eventually captured. Bob pines for his wife, who is pregnant with her daughter, and years later finally breaks out to reclaim his family. But while he has stayed in a state of romantic swoon, Ruth may have moved on, with the help of a kindly sheriff (Ben Foster) who was involved in their capture.

“Saints’ has been compared to Malick’s debut “Badlands” and Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” for its tale of lovers on the lam, but Lowery’s film is more interested in the moments between the ones we normally see in these films. Frequently the action happens off-screen, and whatever action we do see has an odd, contemplative rhythm to it.

“I initially start to write a movie that was more of a strangeforward genre film,” Lowery said. “I was writing action scenes and I couldn’t think of a way to do it – we’ve seen the jailbreak scene already, and there have been some really great movies about bank robbers. I found myself really interested in what would happen after that.

“There’s nothing you haven’t seen in other movies, but the way in which we tell it is hopefully what makes it vital,” he added. “The thing that I can bring to it is that sense of rhythm and juxtaposition that are distinctly mine.”

Lowery entered the world of filmmaking primarily as an editor, working on the movies of his friends (he edited Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.”) He made his first film, “St. Nick,” in 2009, and the short film “Pioneer” in 2011.

“Saints” feels like a whole order of magnitude larger, both in its star power with Mara and Affleck and in its ambition. But Lowery said that while the scope of the film was bigger, the essence of making a movie remained the same.

“I was really surprised on the first day of shooting how it felt like everything I made before,” he said. “My first feature was a $12,000 movie and you’d think that making a $3 million movie would be a seismic shift. It’s really not. There’s  a lot more people and there’s rules you have to follow. But at the end, you’re sitting there with a camera and you’ve got some actors and you’ve got a scene you need.”

Lowery especially wanted to retain a feeling of intimacy and improvisation on the set, allowing the actors to experiment and be alive to unplanned things that might happen in the moment.

“One of the ways that you do that is you plan a lot in advance,” he said. “You create a very tight structure and you have your shot list. And then you don’t feel beholden to that. You know that if things get tricky you can fall back on this plan, but you’re creating an environment in which you can be alert to changes.”

His experience in the editing bay turns out to be an asset as a director and even as a writer, as he’s always thinking about how one moment or shot will line up with the others.

“I looked at the shots that I imagined getting and thinking really hard about what I really needed. I tried to simplify and find the most concise and direct way to get the heart of the scene.”

With the success of “Saints,” Lowery’s name has been attached to a number of projects, including writing the remake of Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” to writing and directing “The Old Man and the Gun” with Robert Redford. Lowery said he wouldn’t rule out going back and editing someone else’s film sometime. But not in the near future.

“I’m immediately excited about directing,” he said. “I just had so much fun making this movie.”