The atmosphere nearly obscures the human story in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," and writer-director David Lowery doesn't achieve the mythic quality his brand of storytelling requires. But this honey-colored outlaw semi-Western qualifies as an absorbing mood piece and a contagious expression of love for 1970s cinema. It is also bliss for the eyes.
As it works to give tangible form to feelings such as romantic and maternal love, the drama suggests the films of Terrence Malick. While less ambitious and resonant, it scores in this regard and is additionally distinctive for Lowery's gorgeous somber palette.
Lowery also cites Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and the novels of Cormac McCarthy as influences, and his setting is a timeless-looking Texas. The car models (early 1970s) give the period away.
Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are small-town outlaws and lovers who, during a bloody shootout, surrender to authorities. Bob takes the blame for wounding a deputy, which was Ruth's doing, and goes to prison. Ruth, pregnant, goes free.
Four years later, Bob escapes from jail and heads home, hoping to share a big, beautiful future with his family.
Ruth still loves Bob but is now a caring mother. She doesn't want her daughter, Sylvie, to be part of the dangerous life Bob represents.
Further complications arise when Patrick (Ben Foster), the now-recovered lawman shot by Ruth, becomes concerned about Ruth's and Sylvie's welfare.
Dubious father figure Skerritt (Keith Carradine), meanwhile, warns Bob to stay away from Ruth and Sylvie. Three black-hatted men boost the peril.
That's about all there is to the story, and Lowery's efforts to inject a larger-than-life or exalted aspect into his depiction of elements such as outlawhood and a young mother's suffering don't succeed.
The haziness with which Lowery depicts the feelings of Ruth and Patrick for each other impedes emotional impact. Unlike the sensory ingredients in Malick's films, such components here — everything from dusty interiors to handclaps on the soundtrack — threaten to overwhelm the drama.
Lowery gets lots right, though, delivering moving intimate moments, and by not letting the Bob-Ruth-Patrick scenario become standard triangle dramatics. Some of the imagery, including a post-arrest glimpse of the lovers expressing their bond through body language, is exquisite.
It adds up to a visual jewel and a satisfying story of people struggling to love, thrive and matter.
Among the cast, Affleck, while hampered by the one-dimensional treatment of his big-dreaming character, brings interesting off-kilter elements to Bob. Mara, who has a fascinating way of looking as if she could have stepped out of either a covered wagon or a da Vinci painting, conveys Ruth's conflict.
Foster, best of all, gives Patrick a wonderful soulfulness. Carradine may have been cast because of the Altman credits on his résumé, but there's a joy to that.
REVIEWAin't Them Bodies Saints
Starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine
Written and directed by David Lowery
Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes