David Lowery’s brittle and desperately sad tale of crime and doomed love set in the Texas hills in the 1970s has all the pastoral lyricism of a Terence Malick film and the sparse minor notes of a Cormac McCarthy novel. However, it loses a lot in its execution. The illusory storyline unfolds poetically but it can also be dull and Bradford Young’s almost wilfully sepulchral lighting renders much of the movie hard to actually follow.
It is often quite literally a shot in the dark that may leave you guessing at what just happened and what was just said. However, what makes Ain't Them Bodies Saints worthwhile are very impressive performances from Ben Foster as a local sheriff, who (in a reversal of the usual clichés) is a strong and very decent man and Keith Carradine as a small town patriarch, his face as etched and worn as the local landscape, who is very much the moral compass of the film.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are the main players in a story that develops from romantic longing and turns into a savage game of cat and mouse. They play Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, a young outlaw couple whose extended crime spree comes to an end when they are surrounded by local lawmen in an abandoned house out in the badlands. Guthrie, who has just fallen pregnant with Muldoon’s child, wings an officer in the ensuing shootout and Muldoon takes both the blame and a lengthy jail sentence.
The years trickle by but when he busts out of the local pen determined to spirit Ruth and their young daughter away, she has to confront the new realities and responsibilities of her life. The return of Muldoon, a charismatic and self-possessed young man, also upsets the rhythms of the local town and both Carradine and the sheriff wish to see justice done and Ruth and her child protected from Muldoon’s romantic but dangerous delusions.
A soundtrack of mordant strings and guitar recalling Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bill Callahan really complements this still and atmospheric piece of western noir and the title hints at a hymnal quality - the idea that the story of love, destiny and wrecked hopes is as old as those Texan hills.
Lowery’s movie aches with a real understated sadness but more light and less frustrating gloom the next time and he may become the natural heir to the elegiac American filmmaking of the seventies.