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PARK CITY - There's something alluringly, disconcertingly off-kilter from the get-go in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," an imposing third feature from editor-turned-filmmaker David Lowery, and it's not merely the quivery infighting of strings and handclaps in Daniel Hart's striking score: it's that the opening scene of this film is one that has closed so many others. Bob and Ruth, criminal lovers on the lam, are apprehended by the cops on dun-colored Texan terrain after a bloody shootout, A killing spree is ended, justice is served, the couple is parted, pledging devotion. The end. No, the beginning.
From this point onwards, I found it hard not to imagine this languid, pictorially rich film as a belated sequel to Terrence Malick's "Badlands," even if its indeterminate 1970s backdrop is in keeping with the production rather than setting of Malick's debut. I'm not claiming this as any kind of insight: you'd have to be, if not blind, at least overly startled by lens flares to miss the overt Malickisms of this pre-credit sequence, quite aside from the borrowed narrative spark: the whispery expressions of intimacy, the sun-drugged camera, all that long grass.
But if this is open homage, it comes with its own narrative motivations: where many a great American film has been made about criminal activity, it's rarer to have one equally interested in criminal inactivity. After the opening credits lift, we jump forward four years to find Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) living defused lives. He's in prison, early into a 25-year sentence. She's managed to avoid captivity, despite shooting a policeman at the time of her capture; for her sins, she's instead raising their child alone, embarking on a tentative romantic dalliance with the very same cop (Ben Foster).
As he keeps trying to break out -- with five escape attempts in two years -- she resists putting a name to her new relationship. An unspoken, wholly impossible love triangle endures, as Bob finally make it outside on his sixth try, and finds he has little to pursue but a love that cannot be . The result may be one of the saddest and, somehow, most hard-boiled films ever made about those very 21st-century concepts of redemption and responsibility. It's enough to make you wonder if Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were better off preserving their love in a hail of bullets.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that sounds rather ponderous, and indeed, if I were to state a reservation with Lowery's fine-tooled style, it's that "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" seems a tad too impressed with its own longueurs, thickening the pace less to serve its own story than a vague sense of formality -- not unlike Bob's own rigidly preserved fantasies of grand romantic union.
Where the filmmaking might feel a tad swollen on its own formidable merits, however, the performances could scarcely be more sharply whittled. It's been three years since Affleck had a role of this magnitude -- also at Sundance, oddly enough, in Michael Winterbottom's "The Killer Inside Me," and the screen needs more of his nervously laconic presence.
There's implacable resolve but also a puppyish glint of hope in Affleck's hard, milky gaze; we root for Bob's heart not to break while knowing full well it will. Mara, barely recognizable in stance or body language from her Oscar-nominated Lisbeth Salander; seems at once more tender but less destructible, her porcelain-doll face regarding the world with a sweet nature and pre-reduced expectations. It says much for both these performances that they seem to work in tandem despite hardly sharing the screen -- though the gentle, stoic Foster, abandoning the fussiness that has aggravated in some of his recent work, is hardly a third wheel.
Still, the camera itself may be the true star of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," specifically as wielded by the increasingly impressive cinematographer Bradford Young, whose work has wowed in two Sundance competition entries this year. (The other, Brooklyn-set drama "Mother of George," couldn't be more differently textured.) Here, he does roughly for the plains of Texas what "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" did for the steppes of Turkey, working with minimal light and a compressed, grassy palette to find alien beauty in despairing surroundings. If we can hope for anything in this grimly graceful film, it's that the characters are at least watching their suffering through the same gilded eyes.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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