Doomy, dreamy 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'
I have it on good authority - people who actually know the guy - that David Lowery is real.
This is still hard to believe, however. When Lowery's name came up on the credits as the writer and director of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, I was convinced the recently prolific Terrence Malick was fooling around with a nom de cinema. (After the debacle of To the Wonder, starring Ben Affleck and vast acres of Oklahoma wheat, he was doubtless running for cover.)
Set in the Texas hill country in some throwback era that could be the 1970s but feels like the 1870s, this doomy, dreamy tale of an outlaw couple - Casey Affleck (yes, another Affleck) and Rooney Mara - has all the Malick trademarks: the dust, the crickets, the waif-er-thin beauty in the billowy vintage dress, the poetic voice-overs, the from-the-back-of-the-head- moving-into-the-flares-of-dusk tracking shots, the tall grasses waving in the wind.
And, like Malick's early masterpiece, 1973's Badlands - which boasts one of the most beautiful voice-over passages in movie history, the one Sissy Spacek does in her Lone Star drawl, ending with the line "Instead, I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth where nobody could read them" - it's about a man and woman on the run. Guns are involved, and the law is in pursuit.
But unlike Spacek and the sociopath Elvis played by Martin Sheen, there's no doubt where Affleck's Bob Muldoon and Mara's Ruth Guthrie's affections lie: The two are hopelessly in love, intertwined. "I always mean you and me," he says, guaranteeing he'd never wander off and leave her alone.
Which, as it happens, after a shootout with the sheriffs, is exactly what he does. Bob takes the rap for a bullet that found its way into the chest of a lawman, a bullet Ruthie had actually fired. He goes to jail and writes long, longing letters vowing his return. She is pregnant and has a baby girl. She waits. And she is visited by the lawman (Ben Foster) whom she shot, although he thinks Bob did it, and anyway he doesn't hold any grudges. He has a walrus mustache and a keen interest in Ruth.
OK, so maybe it's unfair to keep harping on this Lowery/Malick thing. Clearly, Lowery watched his Malick, but also McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Bonnie and Clyde. He has made a loping and lovely romance, steeped in tragedy, with a Texas twang. (The music, full of pulsing strings, pedal steel, and emphatic percussion, adds a whole other dimension to the film.) Affleck and Mara are working in unison, even when their characters are not.
Things are going to end badly, that's for sure. And that's the beauty of the thing.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by David Lowery. With Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara,
Ben Foster, and Keith Carradine. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.