"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is a wistful and wayward drama about an outlaw couple who will get under your skin and work on your heart if you're not careful.
This latest feature from indie filmmaker David Lowery confirms what I suspected — that he is a romantic and a nostalgic at heart. His first movie, 2009's "St. Nick," had kids on the run in a Tom Sawyer-esque tale. "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" has distant echoes of Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" — though Lowery's intimate storytelling seems closer to the Altman school and his bloodletting doesn't come close to Penn's.
The "Saints" are mostly sinners. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck star as Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon, small-town grifters with outsized dreams. The movie is set in Texas, as all good western-flavored shoot-'em-ups should be. Bob and Ruth fall in love in a field of wildflowers. Though they are destined for poverty, they are disinclined to settle for that. Their 1970s coming-of-age crime story, like the bump in the road of Meridian where they live, is mostly unruffled by modern times.
A baby is on the way when a robbery goes wrong. The shootout with the cops leaves one of the robbers dead and Sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) wounded. The scene is as poetic as it is bloody, guns blazing from a deserted wooden farmhouse, dreams dying faster than the friend who pulled the job with them.
Much of the movie and its writer-director's musing turn on what happens next. Bob, Ruth and Sheriff Wheeler each face challenges, choices and possible second chances. Keith Carradine plays Skerritt, a stoic old lawman who knows all the parties involved and is trying to look out for everyone's best interest, especially Ruth and her daughter Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith).
Though Lowery is skillful with dialogue, there are ways he ties the events together that are knotty. The first is the most problematic. Though a natural fall guy is right at their feet, felled by the cops and long past complaining about issues like loyalty and betrayal, Bob grabs the gun that shot the sheriff. Lowery is intent that the couple will grapple with the idea of responsibility, whatever frustrations with logic that might pose for the rest of us.
Lowery has put in the kind of details that enrich a character and a film. Bob spends his prison time writing florid letters to Ruth, the memory of her sustaining him, the flashbacks sustaining us. Back in Meridian, Ruth is saving those letters. But her days and nights are framed by the rhythm of Sylvie's childhood — fresh-washed laundry on the line, bedtime stories, church on Sunday.
The sheriff has grown fond of the mother and child. His dilemma is his decency; Wheeler is careful to care without stepping over any lines. Respectful even of a jailed man.
A prison break forces everyone to choose sides. The plot meanders around the many issues it poses and it's a gambler's call whether Ruth and Sylvie will end up on the run.
Mara is the captivating center of the film, all the emotions of the men and the child hinge on her moods. She continues to be one of those actresses able to shape-shift into different places, times and characters. None of the edge she brought to Lisbeth Salander for David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is here. It's more that the actress has taken a different measure of Ruth, a flighty girl forced by circumstances to toughen up.
Affleck plays conflicted souls so very well. Just as his compromised detective in "Gone Baby Gone" had you in his corner, here you wish for a criminal's redemption. He and Mara have an easy chemistry on screen that holds you even when their lovers' whispering becomes almost impossible to catch. The language Lowery uses is so lovely it's a shame any is lost.
All the angst and indecision happens in saturated beauty, the film shot mostly during the so-called "magic hour," when the light on people and places could not be more perfect. Cinematographer Bradford Young's work on "Saints" and "Mother of George" won Sundance's top prize earlier this year. The soundtrack aches with love and pain, an ethereal blend of bluesy folk-rock. Lowery cites "McCabe," seasoned by Leonard Cohen's minor chords, as inspiration.
Back to that romantic streak of Lowery's. The director's habit of falling in love with all of his "Saints" has its drawbacks. The day of reckoning comes as more of an afterthought, after other more interesting thoughts. Whether you'll want to forgive that indiscretion depends. I'm a bit of a romantic too, so I'll take Lowery's "Saints" flaws and all.
'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'
MPAA rating: R for some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: At Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles