The title sounds like a bit of ersatz down-home poetry (it’s actually derived from a folk song), and the same can be said of the whole of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” a sophomore feature by David Lowery that’s a sad disappointment after his remarkable 2011 debut “St. Nick.” With ostentatiously artsy visuals, a flat, parched script, cruelly deliberate pacing and far more concern for mood than narrative coherence, it’s a film that tries to mimic the style of Terrence Malick and succeeds only too well.
The picture is basically a tale of doomed young love. In small-town Texas, time not specified, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are captured after a shoot-out at a ramshackle farmhouse where they were holed up after a robbery. But their partner—again unspecified—is killed by the cops, and Deputy Patrick Wilson (Ben Foster) is wounded in the exchange of fire. Bob takes Ruth’s gun—it was she who shot the lawman—and the rap as well, as a result getting a long prison term. Meanwhile Ruth gives birth to Bob’s daughter Sylvie and raises her on her own, though the recovered Patrick takes an interest in them that bespeaks a romantic longing.
Bob writes long love letters to Ruth from the joint, but that’s insufficient, and after a few years he breaks out and makes his way back to their hometown. After hiding out for a time with barkeep Sweetie (Nate Parker), he makes his way to the general store on main street run by Skerritt (Keith Carradine), an elderly gent who’s been a father figure to Ruth, whom he’s provided with a house, and apparently to Bob too. Muldoon intends to reconnect with Ruth and their daughter, but when he approaches her place he discovers the solicitous Patrick in attendance and departs. And before he can act on his impulse again, three men show up gunning for him, and a fight ensues.
This much is relatively clear, though much else is not. Presumably the fellow killed in the opening shootout was Skerritt’s son—there a later reference to his death in Bob’s company—but that’s never spelled out. Nor is the identity of the desperadoes who come to town looking for Muldoon. One supposes they’re bounty hunters, but were they brought into the situation by Skerritt, or is the fact that they come to his store just an accident? Was Walker’s interest in Ruth something that preceded her relationship with Muldoon, or did it arise after his sentencing—and if the latter, how? Perhaps these and other pertinent plot points are obscured by the muddy sound recording—at least in the screening on which this review is based—but even if they’re explained somewhere, it seems as though they’re given very short shrift.
In any event, Lowery’s emphasis isn’t on clear-headed storytelling but the visual realm, and there, working with cinematographer Bradford Young, he certainly succeeds. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” exudes atmosphere; the images have a hazy but almost tactile sense—you feel that sticking your hand into the screen would be like putting it into a warm shower. Within this matrix the characters moon and mope about, none more than Bob, whom Affleck plays with a somber deliberation that recalls his turns in “The Killer Inside Me” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” where the technique worked better. But Mara, Foster and Carradine aren’t far behind. Mention should also be made of David Hart’s score, which avoids cliché but is sometimes too obtrusive.
There’s no denying that Lowery has real cinematic vision, but as this film shows, he also has a tendency to opt for self-conscious poeticism. One hopes that he’ll tame that more effectively than his apparent inspiration Terrence Malick has.