There’s a sparse, sad little crime drama buried somewhere inside writer-director David Lowery’s debut feature, and you occasionally get a glimpse of it when you can see around all of the filmmaker’s overblown affectations. Preaching from the Terrence Malick-is-God shrine of the cinema history chapel, Lowery tries on so many borrowed techniques that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints never gets a chance to develop an identity of its own.
Which is too bad, because there’s some great stuff here, starting with that title. In a washed-out 1970’s 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 movie’s 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. He’s wandering barefoot through the wilderness, headed home to reclaim his wife and the daughter he hasn’t met yet. If course, everybody knows exactly where Bob’s going. His ardent declarations of love for Ruth, handwritten weekly, were read by all the prison authorities before being mailed. Foster’s kindly cop, Patrick, takes to hanging around her house, ostensibly waiting for Bob to turn up, but also because he’s grown kind of sweet on Ruth. (Poor schmuck still doesn’t know that she’s the one who shot him.)
There’s 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 doesn’t take a world-class detective to figure out that they might have dibs on that suitcase full of cash that Bob’s been carrying around. There’s a low-key, folksy inevitability to the tale, but unfortunately, there’s nothing low-key about Lowery’s direction.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a fable, or a myth, or a murder ballad–heck, 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 you’ve 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 Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and then Carradine show up to seal the deal. When exactly does paying homage become movie karaoke?
Again, it’s a shame because there’s the raw material for a decent little picture in here. Affleck plays Bob with a dreamy-eyed distraction. He’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t matter that the character he’s 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 Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won a well-deserved award for Bradford Young’s 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 chance—and sadly emerged with the same opinion. No story could survive this molasses flood of mythic grandeur.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine
Director: David Lowery