Theres a sparse, sad little crime drama buried somewhere inside writer-director David Lowerys debut feature, and you occasionally get a glimpse of it when you can see around all of the filmmakers overblown affectations.Preaching from the Terrence Malick-is-God shrine of the cinema history chapel, Lowery tries on so many borrowed techniques that Aint Them Bodies Saints never gets a chance to develop an identity of its own.

Which is too bad, because theres some great stuff here, starting with that title. In a washed-out 1970s Texas full of weathered signs, junked cars and eloquent moustaches, Casey Affleck stars as Bob Muldoon, a small-time criminal with a lazy smile. The first five minutes are a jumble of elusive backstory, with Bob and his pregnant bride, Ruth (Rooney Mara), on the run, Bonnie and Clyde style. Their short-lived spree finds them surrounded by police in one of the movies many decrepit farmhouses, and Bob takes the rap after Ruth shoots and wings a local deputy (Ben Foster).

Cut to four years later, when Bob finally finds a way to escape from the joint. Hes wandering barefoot through the wilderness, headed home to reclaim his wife and the daughter he hasnt met yet. If course, everybody knows exactly where Bobs going. His ardent declarations of love for Ruth, handwritten weekly, were read by all the prison authorities before being mailed.Fosters kindly cop, Patrick, takes to hanging around her house, ostensibly waiting for Bob to turn up, but also because hes grown kind of sweet on Ruth. (Poor schmuck still doesnt know that shes the one who shot him.)

Theres also some to-do about the mysterious motivations of a former crime boss (Keith Carradine), who now sits around all day behind a counter at the general store. Three swarthy gunsels have also turned up in town, and it doesnt take a world-class detective to figure out that they might have dibs on that suitcase full of cash that Bobs been carrying around. Theres a low-key, folksy inevitability to the tale, but unfortunately, theres nothing low-key about Lowerys direction.

Aint Them Bodies Saints is a fable, or a myth, or a murder balladheck, it can be anything you want to call it except for a straight, well-told story. For some inexplicable reason, Lowery treats every scene like that opening sequence, requiring his two editors (Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo) to puree simple dialogue exchanges into prismatic flashes forward and backward in time. Conversations are transformed into abstract voice-over narration, puffing up the most ordinary exposition into self-conscious poetry. Stop me if youve heard this one, but the recurring visual motif involves a hand-held camera following Mara as she twirls through a sun-dappled field of wheat.

I say this as a lifelong Malick fan: Enough with the chicks twirling through the goddamned sun-dappled fields of wheat already! Even the man himself lapsed into self-parody with this trope earlier this year in To the Wonder, and David Lowery is no Terrence Malick, no matter how many times he may have seen Badlands and Days of Heaven. (A lot, judging from his shot selections here.) Early in the film, I was also thinking that the production design owes a lot to Robert Altmans Thieves Like Us, and then Carradine show up to seal the deal. When exactly does paying homage become movie karaoke?

Again, its a shame because theres the raw material for a decent little picture in here. Affleck plays Bob with a dreamy-eyed distraction. Hes such a charming fool, the fact that this could all turn out horribly seems beyond his comprehension. At one point, he takes a bullet in the shoulder, regarding his assailant with priceless befuddlement: You shot me? But you dont even know me?

Ben Foster is usually one of the hammier young actors around, but he plays his quiet deputy close to the vest, with a disarmingly bashful sincerity. Keith Carradine has such a commanding persona, it almost doesnt matter that the character hes playing is such a vague blur. The only false notes are rung by Rooney Mara, far too cosmopolitan a screen presence to be believable as a bumpkin.

I was seriously underwhelmed by Aint Them Bodies Saints at this years Sundance Film Festival, where it won a well-deserved award for Bradford Youngs almost distractingly beautiful cinematography. Since then, so many people I admire have spoken so highly of the movie, I felt compelled to give it a second chanceand sadly emerged with the same opinion. No story could survive this molasses flood of mythic grandeur.

Aint Them Bodies Saints

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine

Director: David Lowery

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