Set in 1970s Texas, but stationed inside an authentic milieu that feels timeless and classic, David Lowery's fourth feature-length effort, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," is the culmination of a filmmaker who has put in over a decade of work in the trenches as an editor, cinematographer, writer, electrical department hand and more (fun fact: he's also the editor of Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color"). The jack of all trades is not only fluent in several languages within the vocabulary of this medium, he clearly has an innate understanding of each. Lowery is the real deal and understands filmmaking, and this is abundantly clear in this searing, romantic crime drama and love story.
Tuned to the pitch of a moody and dark folk ballad that just can't end well, 'Saints' takes the familiar outlaw narrative and attempts to subvert it with a twist. Instead of lovers on the run from the law, it's lovers separated by the same forces. It's "Badlands" with a deeper aching heart as the Bonnie and Clyde of this story yearn for each other, but are kept apart by their own misguided circumstances.
With a muddy drawn title card that reads, "This was in Texas," the film opens up with a beautiful and then arresting and electric ten-minute prologue. Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and his child wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are criminals. They're also passionate lovers, and she's expecting a baby. They plan a robbery with their pal Freddy (Kentucker Audley), but soon the law have them cornered in a violent shoot-out. Freddy is killed. Ruth shoots a police officer named Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), and sensing bloody revenge and no way out, Bob surrenders and takes the blame for shooting the lawman despite Ruth's pleas to make a run for it. 'Saints' then begins.
Sentenced to a long stretch in prison, Bob goes away, but Ruth is acquitted; though positioned as a victim of these two criminal masterminds to ensure she can raise her baby out of jail, she is no innocent. Her advisor and friend Skerritt (an excellent Keith Carradine), who seemingly planned the robbery in the first place, acts as a father figure and helps her out by selling Ruth and Bob's old home and placing her in a house he owns next door to him where she can care for her daughter and he can safely watch over them.
Four years later, Bob is still in jail and Ruth is raising a curious and precocious little girl on her own. In this time, Patrick Wheeler has graduated to become a local sheriff and he's become curiously interested in Ruth. Not only because of her involvement in the crime where he was shot years ago, but seemingly because of his empathy for her. Though her dark, alluring beauty sure doesn't hurt either. And just as Wheeler begins poking his nose into Ruth's life, she learns that her husband, after his sixth attempt, has escaped from jail.
While the law is convinced that Bob is coming to reunite with his family, Ruth vows that he would know better than to bring that kind of trouble to her doorstep now. But the impassioned Bob, who wrote a letter to Ruth every day in jail, lives for Ruth, and his driving impetus is to reconcile with his wife and the daughter he's never met at all costs. And like a bad moon rising, with a portentous storm brewing on the horizon, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" begins to tighten its anxious grip as Bob makes his way back to Texas, and as Ruth fears for the prospect of his return and Patrick becomes more entwined in her life. Knowing that Bob will show his head, the protective Skerritt begins to put the feelers out on his whereabouts, but Bob's first stop is a local dive run by his friend Sweetie (a terrific Nate Parker). 'Saints' then lights a long fuse that throbs and slowly burns with beautiful and riveting intensity that rarely lets up.
While spiritually indebted to Terrence Malick – and yes, it possesses its fair share of the filmmaker's sun-kissed photography and the like – it would be far too simple and reductive to just pass this film off as nothing more. While perhaps a distant cousin, with deviating concerns and personal preoccupations, it's ultimately a very different, darker beast (there's just as much Cormac McCarthy tenor in there if not more). Hickory smoked and sunstroked, Bradford Young's tremendous eye makes for some breathtaking and dusty gorgeous visuals, feeling tactile and lived-in. And just as sublime, and another MVP of the picture's below-the-line talent, is probably Daniel Hart's haunting and moody score. Cripple-creek fiddles pluck away anxiously, cellos drone, banjos twang out with ghostly notes and violins cry into the night sky, creating a sonorous musical backdrop for this brooding picture to lay its ten gallon hat on.
And the performances are all top notch. Mara and Affleck's brief romantic sequences are moving, and the entire cast delivers pitch-perfect turns such that there's not a false note within. But the film's secret weapon might just be the inquisitive and caring cop played by Foster. His smoldering intensity does so much with so little, and it's a terrific, textured performance that hopefully gets him further notice.
Building like a spiritual sermon on fire, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" coils up to a terrific crescendo that's arresting and devastating. But if there's one main issue to be found, it may be its length. Some small trims throughout could help the pace a bit and also reduce the fatigue of the film's long sweaty simmer. But that minor quibble aside, Lowery has stepped up to be noticed, and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is a wholly engrossing and impressive piece of work that the movie world will be talking about all year long. [A-]