Dallas-based indie filmmaker David Lowery has made a habit of referencing Robert Altman's classic 1971 Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller whenever he speaks publicly about Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Lowery's second feature film. Set in small-town Texas in what appears to be the early 1970s, Saints is no Western in the usual sense of the word. Its story of doomed lovers living outside the law fits that genre like a worn saddle on a palomino. But Saints' real debt to Altman's masterpiece can be found in its fearlessly one-of-a-kind look and feel, memorable performances delivered with few words and a certain lived-in quality that connects easily with the here-and-now. The movie plays like an old song on a distant jukebox, one you wouldn't mind hearing again as soon as it's finished.
The story centers on Ruth (Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Bob (Casey Affleck), a young couple who are hopelessly in love and seem to live exclusively on armed robbery. Almost as soon as we meet him, Bob gets incarcerated for a crime the couple committed together. He vows to return to Ruth and his baby girl, whom he's never met, but a homecoming proves difficult. Lowery intentionally omits a lot of story details from his script, often the kind other directors rely on as building blocks for their films. A holdup that sets in motion all the story's events is left almost entirely off-screen. Lowery somehow makes such daring choices feel natural, and his lean storytelling throws his carefully drawn characters into sharp relief. Mara, Affleck, Ben Foster (as a good-hearted cop who barely survives the couple's rampage) and Keith Carradine — who began his film career in McCabe & Mrs. Miller — all rise to the occasion and make every word and gesture count.
Lowery has spent years as an editor, script doctor and loyal confidant to other independent filmmakers, and that early career now looks like the best possible way to prepare for life as an auteur. With help from old-school 35mm film stock and award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young (Middle of Nowhere), he delivers a constant stream of gorgeous images captured exclusively in Texas and Louisiana. The whole movie seems to take place in twilight — even the interior scenes possess a warm and otherworldly glow. With its mix of insistent rhythms, American roots music and flourishes of string quartet, Daniel Hart's soundtrack specifically recalls the propulsive work of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood on recent P.T. Anderson movies There Will Be Blood and The Master. Though its pace is slow by modern standards, Saints keeps viewers engaged by bringing together all its formal elements with near-symphonic grace.
The lifeblood of mythic Westerns — along with movies inspired by them — is a sense of loss, an elegy for an ideal of freedom doomed to disappear through "progress" along with the open frontier. In Ain't Them Bodies Saints, that loss is even more personal because it comes from the bad choices and missed opportunities that each of us endures. There's nothing like a fresh take on an old idea. — KEN KORMAN