“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.
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.