The outlaw romance “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” is a lyrical, sepia-toned folk tale, awash in 1970s filmmaking and the kind of stylized folksiness that pickling Brooklyn hipsters with handlebar mustaches will positively drool over.
It deserves some of that drool: David Lowery's film, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as entwined, young Texas bandits in the `70s, is an elegiac tone poem, beautifully shot by cinematographer Bradford Young, memorably scored with strings and handclaps by Daniel Hart and enlivened by a distinct rhythm unusual for such a well-trod genre.
But it also, in every moment, bears an unmistakable sense of artful pretense that drains “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” of the naturalism it aspires to. There's plenty Terrence Malick-like magic-hour photography and – after Affleck's Bob Muldoon is imprisoned – a number of poignant love letters between Muldoon and Mara's Ruth Guthrie read aloud for old-timey effect.
Even in the film's most striking visual – of Muldoon and Guthrie being led briskly away in handcuffs after a police shootout – the two lean against each other in an artificial pose symbolic of the entire film's feigned posture. The inspirations – Malick's “Badlands,” Robert Altman's “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” – are worn obviously. It's a film contrived to be old-fashioned, more a dream of a movie than simply a movie.
Thankfully, the most self-conscious, well-studied stabs aren't all “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” is. Lowery, who's often worked as an editor, is inclined toward the less obvious moments. In favor of big scenes like the robbery that leads to the shootout (which we don't see), Lowery tells the story through quieter, in-between moments.
The majority of the film takes place four years after Muldoon was jailed. Guthrie is living alone with their four-year-old daughter when word comes that Muldoon has broken out of prison. At the same time, a local sheriff, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) – the same man Guthrie shot in the shootout that Muldoon took the blame for – begins to visit Guthrie.
A kind of triangle slowly takes shape between the three as Muldoon makes his way back to Meridian, Texas. While he boasts of his escape to fulfill his “higher calling” as a father, Guthrie's devotion to her daughter has complicated her still strong feelings for Muldoon. Lowery begins to strip away the archetypes and something more emotional and melodramatic takes shape, particularly because of Foster's fine, unguarded performance.
The laconic Affleck (playing another Texan reminiscent of his in “The Killer Inside Me”) and the otherworldly Mara have plenty of chemistry as a kind of deconstructed Bonnie and Clyde.
But the performer who makes the largest impression is a refugee from those `70s films Lowery pays homage to: Keith Carradine. Every time the film touches on him – a minor player as the man who raised Muldoon who now wearily regards his brazen return – the affectations of “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” fall away.