There are some films (and filmmakers, for that matter) that wear their influences on their sleeves, unabashedly declaring to which cinematic predecessors its creators are most indebted. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but the catch is that the director should bring enough of his or her original voice to the material that the film is able to work on its own terms. Deeply reminiscent of early Terrence Malick, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" — David Lowery's atmospheric (if somewhat awkwardly titled) fable of young desperados in love — doesn't quite do enough to distinguish itself as much beyond an exercise in staid imitation. But it is clearly the work of a gifted filmmaker nonetheless.
The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") as Bob and Ruth, two outlaws in small-town 1970's Texas who, despite their criminal actions, dream of an idyllic existence together somewhere off in the hazy future. She learns she's pregnant, and it seems as if their aspirations are within reach. But after one of their heists goes wrong (the film is deliberately vague on the specifics), the thieves end up cornered by the police in a dilapidated old barn. In the ensuing standoff, Ruth shoots a policeman, Patrick (Ben Foster), but Bob valiantly takes the fall for their misdeeds and is sent up to the state penitentiary.
Time passes, and the young lovers exchange letters, with Bob vowing to return her, no matter how long it takes. Meanwhile, Patrick has been checking in on Ruth, stopping by her home to spend time her and her now 4-year-old daughter, and he has obviously developed feelings for her. But then Ruth receives word that after five unsuccessful attempts, Bob has managed to escape prison. As Bob begins his way back to her, she must decide if that's really what's best for her and their young daughter. To complicate matters further, Bob is also being hunted by a group of unsavory bounty hunters, led by Charles Baker (Skinny Pete of TV's "Breaking Bad").
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are both solid in their roles. They turn in subdued performances, but do a decent-enough job making these archetypal characters feel like they have a passing resemblance to actual people. They have a nice chemistry in their early scenes together. I never had a problem believing their romantic relationship, which is key, as they're separated for the majority of the film's running time. Affleck especially feels right at home in the genre, having already given a brilliant performance in 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
Ben Foster continues to prove himself to be a skilled young character actor, infusing his more traditionally heroic character with a wounded soulfulness. Keith Carradine also makes an impression as Ruth's watchful, protective next-door neighbor, who may not be as benign as he appears at first glance. It's also worth noting that he also contributes a song to the film's soundtrack.
As it is, the true star of the show is Bradford Young's beautiful cinematography. The film is, start to finish, lovely to watch. Young deservedly won the Cinematography Award at this past year's Sundance Film Festival. His lensing perfectly captures a mood (even if that mood is "1970's Terrence Malick"), and it does evoke the right feeling for the story and its setting — all yellowed photographs and clouds of dust kicked up by rusty, beat-up pickup trucks in the golden, magic-hour lighting. It's not an exaggeration to say that "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is worth seeing for his work alone.
If nothing else, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" makes me interested to see what the multi-talented Lowery does next. Just over the course of the past year, he edited the abstract, indie sci-fi whatchamacallit "Upstream Color," as well as wrote the screenplay for another popular Sundance title, the blue-collar Texas gay drama "Pit Stop." But here, the director is obviously doing his best to make a Malick film, right down to the hushed dialogue, heightened naturalism, and languid pace (in this case, I'd argue too languid — it would have been nice to at least see some portion of Bob's escape from jail). The film always feels familiar, despite the fact that it's based on Lowery's original screenplay. With all his ability, I'm eager to see a film from him that is wholly his own.