Friday, August 30, 2013 / 8:15 AM
The story that unfolds in writer-director David Lowery's bittersweet new feature, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, will be a familiar one to enthusiasts of American Westerns. In mid-century rural Texas, small-time robber Bob (Casey Affleck) and pregnant girlfriend Ruth (Rooney Mara) are captured following a shootout, leaving an accomplice dead and a sheriff's deputy (Ben Foster) wounded. Bob takes the fall for the couple's crimes, permitting Ruth's acquittal but also condemning her to a lonely life as a single mom. Four years later, Bob escapes from prison, and the film's main narrative and dramatic stakes snap into focus. Feverishly determined and a bit of an addled romantic, Bob attempts to reunite with his lover and the daughter he's never met, as Ruth in turn wrestles over what loyalty demands of her. Meanwhile deputy Wheeler closes in on Bob's trail, even as he woos Ruth with his gentleman cowboy manner.
It's hardly an original tale, but the excellent cast and Lowery's commanding aesthetic prevent the story from devolving into mustiness. Simply put, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a flat-out gorgeous film. Bradford Young's cinematography is arresting, full of low, piercing sunbeams and tobacco-dim spaces, while Daniel Hart's bluegrass score adds a vital, eccentric itch. For good and for ill, Terrence Malick's works are a manifest influence on Bodies—the film's plot and mood recall Badlands, while the setting nods towards Days of Heaven and Tree of Life. If Lowery's film disappoints, it's due to the shallowness of its ambitions. It offers no real insight, just the distilled drama of sharply drawn characters blundering towards an inevitably tragic conclusion. Still, the straightforward pleasure of a well-worn tale handsomely told is still a delight worth savoring, and in this respect Bodies impresses.
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