Movie review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (PG)

Movie review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (PG)
Stills from the movie Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (PG)

96 minutes/Opens Thursday, Oct 24/ **½

Picturesque poetry marred by dull story

The story: Former outlaws Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are in love. He is in prison after taking the rap for Ruth, who had killed a policeman during a gun battle. She tries to blend into the rural Midwestern community, and catches the eye of policeman Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), who tries to woo her. When Bob learns that she is pregnant with his baby, he breaks out of prison to be with her.

Writer-director David Lowery is a film-maker who is not afraid to flaunt his influences.

This story of a doomed love affair has a plot that feels lifted from a Bob Dylan murder ballad or an early Bruce Springsteen track about small towns, big dreams and escapes, with guns ablaze.

The look is Terrence Malick's - every scene seems lit by a yellow sun low on the horizon, producing lots of lens flare. Each line of dialogue is plain-spoken, spare, expressed with deep intensity.

And the enunciation, for Casey Affleck at least, is pure mumblecore.

As an exercise in style, this work is a masterpiece of the genre that might be called picturesque poverty, American mid-west edition. The period is some time in the recent past, when cars and architecture looked great and people were thin. It was when broken-in jeans, faded gingham dresses, long sideburns, moustaches and flannel shirts were worn by the blue-collar classes, not hipsters in coffee bars.

The story is simple and almost inconsequential.

In this work, winner of the cinematography award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Lowery puts the emphasis on poeticism. Affleck is well-cast, playing Bob, a man consumed by his love for Ruth, a woman who is both his salvation and his doom. Mara's Ruth is, like Bob, lit up from within by a sense of destiny. Both work well together. Mara, in particular, seems to have slowed down the rhythm of her speech to match the thick-tongued Affleck's.

Foster, as the lovelorn third wheel and possible source of disaster when the fugitive Bob shows up, is also more than adequate. As Bob draws nearer to Ruth, Lowery ratchets up the sense of threat tastefully, neither showing too much nor too little, saving Bob from looking like a cartoon shark circling his prey.

None of this, however, makes up for the stretches of dullness that punctuate this work. Often, Lowery's grip on the story fails. What is left is a study in retro nostalgia, like browsing someone's very carefully constructed Instagram page.

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