In writer-director David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a revelation emerges slowly. Casey Affleck, playing rural Texas bandit Bob Muldoon, is telling a local bar owner (Nate Parker) about how he escaped from jail. The camera focuses on him as he describes the rather mundane details, the most memorable words being the back-and-forth of “I said” and “He said” as Muldoon recalls his exchange with a guard. How did he do it? “I just walked right out.”
The revelation is that Affleck was born to play an outlaw. The story may be set in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but Bob Muldoon might as well be Robert Ford, from 2007’s criminally overlooked The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (Or even his S&M-loving character in 2010’s less impressive The Killer Inside Me.) His soft, high voice and stillness when he speaks is mesmerizing. He looks like both a kid and a psychopath. You can’t quite tell if his character considers you a friend or his next victim.
Muldoon shares the focus with Ruth (the equally magnetic Rooney Mara, who proves to be an excellent shape-shifter), his lover and partner in crime. She shoots a cop; he takes the blame. She’s pregnant when this happens, so part of Muldoon’s motivation to escape is to not only see her, but the daughter he’s yet to meet.
Lowery’s film is rather Terrence Malickian, only, well, tolerable, and as barebones as the story is, there still is a discernible story, and not a self-serious one. He relies on a lot of wide-shot landscapes, the sun flaring between characters (much of it takes place outdoors) and muting the colors. Dialogue from one interaction runs over the wordless scene of another; the soundtrack consists of handclaps, fiddles, and banjos, mostly melancholy but sometimes symbolic of determination. Combined, these features lend the film a poetic, otherworldly quality, when the country setting already makes it feel like it’s taking place in a land time forgot.
The only detail that occasionally jars you out of this encompassing fiction is the too-proper dialogue; there may be an “ain’t” once in a while, but when the twangy-accented Ruth says, “We were just doing what you taught us,” you hear a “was” even though it’s not there. It’s also odd to see Ben Foster—somewhat unrecognizable at first—playing a good-guy cop, when he’s so skilled at the menacing roles he’s more often cast in. Still, this doesn’t tarnish Lowery’s dream. And, unlike certain Malick films, you won’t leave the theater thinking, “What the hell was that?”