By David Watson

Gawd, don’t us movie fans love us some tales of doomed lovers on the lam?  From You Only Live Once and They Live By Night to Bonnie And Clyde and Badlands all the way up to Natural Born Killers, we just can’t get enough of them crazy, mixed-up kids, restless free spirits with the souls of poets, who never meant nobody no harm expressing their love of life and each other through a tri-state, murder-happy crime spree.  They’re so cute!  Well, good news, judging by Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, writer/director and indie stalwart David Lowery thinks so too. 

In the overly familiar, dirt poor, white trash, rural Texan idyll of the ‘70s, all gently waving sun-dappled grass and moody interiors where you wish someone would use a bulb higher than 40 watt (it was the ‘70s, Americans didn’t give a shit about the environment then, look at the size of their cars), young hayseeds in love Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are cruelly torn apart by fate (and the law) when mid-crime spree, the cops surround their tumbledown shack.  During the shoot-out that ensues Ruth wounds soulful young deputy Patrick (Ben Foster) before revealing in a breathless mumble that she’s up the duff causing criminal mastermind Bob to throw down his guns and take the rap for her, heading off for a long stay at the Big House, Ruth swearing to wait for him. 

ain-t-them-bodies-saints09Fast forward a couple of years and Ruth is raising their daughter Sylvie (played by sisters Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) alone under the watchful eye of local crime boss and surrogate father-figure Skerritt (Keith Carradine) and the admiring eye of smitten Deputy Patrick when Bob breaks out of chokey and heads for home intent on reuniting with his family.  With the cops and a trio of vengeful white trash hitmen on Bob’s tail, it’s only a matter of time before tragedy strikes… 

Beautifully shot with a painter’s eye and a pace slower than treacle being poured uphill, already garlanded with praise at Sundance and Cannes, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at times feels almost like a parody of a Terrence Malick film, Lowery taking the slight, familiar, pulpy tale of a doomed convict and his babymama, shearing it of any sense of jeopardy or urgency and stuffing it full of pregnant, stilted silences and mumbled cod-earnest dialogue.  It’s a film that gropes for the poetic while flirting with hicksploitation by offering two relatively privileged Ivy Leaguers the chance to give their aw shucks, retarded Southern shit-kicker accents a workout (Ain’t Them Accents Ropey might’ve been a better title), Affleck giving us a dumber, less worldly version of the Bob he played in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford while Mara, though lethargically lovely, does a very good impression of a very pretty giraffe up past her bedtime.   

Practically everything of any note (the robbery, Bob’s escape) happens off-screen which is refreshing at first but begins to grate when we’re starved of incident and the film’s cold, calculated prettiness robs it of passion; it’s hard to invest in two mumbling somnambulists in love no matter how photogenic.  Keith Carradine is good value in the kind of role normally essayed by Kris Kristofferson, even if you suspect he was cast more because he starred in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, another obvious influence on Lowery while child actresses Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith are astonishing and vital in the shared role of Sylvie.  But while Affleck gives us his best rebel without applause, it’s Foster who really impresses as sympathetic, decent lawman Patrick.  In a career of twitchy outcasts, this may be the closest thing Foster has done to a nice guy and he dominates the film with a towering, quietly commanding performance. 

Beautiful but emptier than a Texan landscape, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints never steps out of the shadows of Malick long enough to grasp the lyricism it’s reaching for.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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