Murder Ballad: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

08/14/2013 4:00 AM |

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Directed by David Lowery

“This was in Texas,” a lantern-lighted parchment declares at the outset of this trying-times romance—all the ramshackle diction (also see the title) gesturing back, rather insistently, toward an old, weird America that’s long since given up the ghost. No mistaking that this is a period piece, but writer-director Lowery makes the when a little harder to nail down than the where. The rambling Hill Country itself appears here as jar-preserved, largely isolated from outside-world concerns and relatively untouched by time: creased color photographs and low-slung pickups place events somewhere in the 1970s, but the film otherwise concerns characters who appear to use minimal electricity, people who sit down to write letters by lamplight, possessed of the patience to wait and wait and wait for each other.

But Lowery himself—coeditor of the recent Sun Don’t Shine and Upstream Color (both also about troubled lovers, strong on impressions but sparing with narrative detail)—wastes no time in establishing Saints’ keynote of lazy foreboding. The inciting action, as it were, occurs before the audience has much opportunity to get their bearings: ne’er-do-well charmer Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) covers for pregnant girlfriend Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), who clips a cop (Ben Foster) during a crime-spree-capping shootout. Bob goes to prison, pledging to return to Ruth; she pledges in turn to wait for him with daughter Sylvie. A few other stubborn types step in to delay their reunion once Bob escapes from jail: that kindly officer, unaware of who actually shot him, keeps watch over Ruth and her child; hardware-store proprietor Keith Carradine threatens Bob, his longtime associate, telling him to make himself scarce.

Aside from the proceedings’ adoption of a world-weary swagger, Lowery hints more directly that he’s consciously working in the long shadow cast by the New American Cinema: not long after Bob breaks free, keeping his distance from Ruth to elude capture, we learn that the fugitive’s accomplices were nabbed in Bartlesville, the Oklahoma hometown of doomed-outlaw-idyll specialist Terrence Malick; Carradine memorably busted out of jail himself in Robert Altman’s Depression-set Thieves Like Us (1974).

Lowery proves no slouch at setting the mood—everything here seems to fit the surroundings, right down to the perfectly proud lilt of Mara’s drawl—but the writ-large passions on display don’t take to the thick atmosphere so much as dry out in it. That’s not to say, though, that this ballad of the pretty-ugly past is entirely unwelcome—especially in a summer when so many of the blue-ribbon indies focus narrowly on native-to-the-city folk struggling against the current.

Opens August 16