Like a bastard love child of Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, David Lowery’s crime drama shuffles to its own drummer. Either you dance to it or you can skip away, but the latter would be a mistake in an era of cookie cutter genre pics.
The story could easily be framed in a Country ballad or a Bruce Springsteen song: Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) have known each other since their youth, and loved each other for nearly ever. When their armed robbery gets messy, Bob takes the rap, goes to prison and misses their first child’s birth. Now he’ll do anything to reunite – even break out of prison – but there’s a soft-spoken sheriff, Patrick (Ben Foster), sitting lovelorn at Ruth’s front door to keep that from happening.
A love triangle wrapped in a backwoods thriller set in 1970’s Texas, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is beautiful to look at in every frame (that’s the Malick golden light, swaying grain influence). The characters are American iconoclasts (cue Altman) chewing their way toward a fate that’s nearly predestined. And, combining both, “Saints” takes its sweet time to hits its genre beats because getting there is everything the movie is about.
Until “Saints,” I never understood Mara. Everything about her was miscast for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” except for her slim form. Here, she has the beauty of Ali McGraw, and a stubborn shyness that pulls away from the camera, forcing it to follow her. She’s almost always looking down, away, out of the frame, something that makes her both ethereal and at odds with contemporary look-at-me reality show culture. We want to see more because she shows so little.
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On the other hand, I’ve always gotten Casey Affleck with his little brother bad boy act and he keeps the faith here. Between himself and Ben, Casey never had the matinee idol looks or the need to carry a tent pole. And so he’s spent his career seeking out some very interesting material: “Gone Baby Gone” with Ben directing, and the epic “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Affleck is wiry, and his voice squeaks and tightens with emotions, but he’s completely convincing.
Foster brings a burning intensity to everything he does, but the standout, we-could-watch-him forever is lanky Altman alum Keith Carradine (“Nashville”). The taut scene between Carradine’s foster father figure and jail-breaker Bob, where the older man warns the younger to stay away from Ruth has a standalone quality. Both actors are so in the moment that the world outside the theater falls away.
Sure, the title is just awful and should have been tossed – it has a pretentious, twangy sound that just doesn’t stick. But what’s memorable is the movie’s sense of grace for its star-crossed characters scratching the dirt for a bit of redemption, and shelter from the brewing storm.