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Sep 02nd
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Texas Tease

filmRapturous outlaw romance ‘Ain't Them Bodies Saints’ looks great, less filling

From the Terrence Malick school of evocative visual splendor comes the outlaw romance Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Written and directed by David Lowery, a longtime art house editor and occasional cinematographer whose work has mostly been in short films, Saints is drenched in atmosphere—artfully filtered sunlight, blue moonlight, misty dawns, heat, dust and shadows. Frame for frame, it's often lovely to behold.

But what exactly all this atmosphere is evoking is another matter. An undefined sense of yearning and longing underscores every minute of the film, but it's never directed at a target that the viewer can quite get a handle on, except in very basic terms. A novice robber and his pregnant girlfriend are separated by a four-year prison stretch. He busts out and longs to return to her, while she yearns to shelter her little daughter from any kind of psychological distress. And that's it for both plot and characterization. The rest is small-town, backwoods Southern ambience, a dynamic fiddle, banjo and hand-clapping soundtrack, and a story that inches along on nuances that never quite explore what makes the characters tick.

The opening title card, "This was in Texas," sets the mood that this is a story being related between friends over a cup of coffee, or a bottle of moonshine. Lowery keeps the time period deliberately obscure (like the film's head-scratching title), opting to replicate the timelessness of a folk ballad, like, say, "Frankie and Johnny," with a few modernistic touches, like pick-up trucks and one character's '70s-era handlebar moustache.

Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are a couple of backwoods kids with a baby on the way. Bob is a dreamer who likes to talk to Ruth's pregnant belly, assuring the embryo inside how happy their life is going to be together. But the path they choose to reach that dream involves a robbery gone horribly awry. When their friend and partner is killed in a shootout with police, Ruth grabs a gun and shoots blindly out the window, wounding an officer. To protect her and the baby, Bob takes the blame and goes to prison.

Four years later, Ruth is living with their little girl, Sylvie, in a rambling farmhouse provided by her neighbor, Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a tough old so-and-so who runs the local general store. His son was the accomplice killed in the shootout, and it's suggested that he also had a hand in raising Bob, and possibly Ruth, as well. When word comes that (after several attempts) Bob has finally busted out of prison, everyone is on alert—the ambivalent Ruth, who loves Bob but wants to keep their daughter safe, Skerritt, determined not to lose his new surrogate family, and Wheeler (Ben Foster), the lawman shot in the gun battle, who's drawn to Ruth.

The action shifts between three fronts: Bob on the lam, hiding out with his bartender buddy, Sweetie (Nate Parker) and trying to get back to Ruth and Sylvie to take them away, Wheeler's shy courtship of Ruth, and Skerritt's determination to keep "those girls" out of harm's way. All these scenarios are intensified by a trio of snarling bounty hunters on Bob's trail. But while the action is comprehensible, given what little we know about the characters, Lowery's script never goes deep enough into their psyches to make them memorable. There's nothing to distinguish these protagonists from a dozen other romanticized outlaw-on-the-lam movies.

Unlike Malick, whose richest films eschew dialogue in favor of the occasional interior monologue, or simply ask us to absorb the film on an experiential level, what the characters say to each other in Saints does often matter. Lowery depends on the viewer being charmed by the poetic quality of Bob's delusional fantasies, and he drops hints of Skerritt's past history with the couple into the spare snatches of conversation he has with both Ruth and Bob—but the viewer has to be quick to catch them. Which leads to another problem: between the characters' Texas twangs, and the actors' tendency to swallow their words in hushed, intimate scenes, the dialogue is often impossible to understand. For best results, viewers are advised to see it on a big screen. 

AIN'T THEM  BODIES SAINTS  ★ ★ 1/2 (out of four)

With Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster. Written and directed by David Lowery. Rated R. 105 minutes.  This film opens soon at The Nick.

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