LAFF 2013: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (***)

David Lowery’s moody, meditative outlaw narrative transcends its basic premise and familiar genre with a subtle poetic hand as muted as the vast and beautiful dusty purple and gray landscapes of the Texas Hills.  What begins as the story of a husband and wife outlaw duo getting cornered by the law, turns into a man escaping from prison, and eventually comes full circle as a game of waiting and testing patience.  Without focusing on the life of crime, the story narrows in on the aftermath and consequences of the characters’ actions, which in turn lead to their different kinds of suffering.  In the many quiet moments between the inevitable gunfights, pockets of delicate sweetness and tenderness in simple character interactions add a sense of real beauty in the midst of difficult, dangerous situations.

Beginning where another film might have ended, Bob Muldoon and his wife Ruth Guthrie are cornered by the police after a presumed robbery.  During a shootout, Ruth critically shoots one of the cops in a panic, but Bob takes the fall to protect her and their unborn child and lands himself in jail.  Four years into Bob’s sentence, he makes an escape and sets out on a journey to come back to Ruth and their daughter, Sylvie.  With the authorities on the constant lookout for Bob, Ruth decides to leave town with their daughter and go someplace where Bob can find them when it’s safe, but Bob’s determination to reunite with his beloved wife and child can’t be stopped.

What Lowery accomplishes in this well-conceived, well-paced story of characters aspiring toward goodness regardless of their past isn’t a grand re-imagining of a genre, but rather a simple, affecting folk tale dealing with delicate emotional material in a natural, almost lyrical tone, akin to something like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978).  Cinematographer Bradford Young captures a look that’s both dreamy and airy yet rough and worn, and violinist Daniel Hart’s original folk music complements this aesthetic with a score that’s alternatively ambient and lilting during moments of tenderness and abrasive and unsettling when tensions rise.  This particular harmony between the visuals and sound draws similarities to the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, particularly There Will Be Blood (2007), which Lowery confirmed was an inspiration when conceiving the look and feel of his film.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, in the limited time they share together, evoke an effortless, playful chemistry between them in their intimate moments of quietly muttered promises and hopes for their future.   For all of the organically displayed tenderness, there’s also a restraint in Lowery’s screenplay that allows for silence that’s just as powerful as the spoken words.  Affleck’s cracking voice ironically counters the calm confidence and grand hopes he carries himself with,  and similarly, Mara’s demure appearance undermines her strength to withstand the difficult choices she must make to ensure her family’s safety.  It’s also incredibly refreshing to see Ben Foster step in as the genuinely decent, forgiving cop who sees only goodness where he might’ve held a grudge.

While no new ground is broken here, Lowery’s intentions to create a simple, sweet fable about enduring consequences come to fruition in a beautifully poetic composition that reads like a old folk song.