They live and die by night: David Lowery’s second feature, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” is a muted whisper of flash and filigree in a Texas-outlaw-couple-fable-cum-triangle, envisioned in crepuscular beauty. A dim juke, a dark barn, an unlit road: It’s nighttime in this part of Texas, in this dream of some Texas past. Some Sundance viewers found ready comparisons to Terrence Malick’s early films, but more than Malick, “Saints” seethes with the sparse parsing of Cormac McCarthy, the fated trajectory of trudge in Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” the intimately tactile character of Claire Denis’ many movies. Like a roster of American movies of the 1970s, these are crooks and lovers and cops who can’t seem to make it right. The main title is calligraphed as if in walnut ink on faded parchment, but this is not the time of pioneers, but instead, the 1970s, maybe, possibly, indeterminate, a time of boxy, elongated vehicles and limited vistas. In the town of Meridian, Texas, in hill country, Saints’ romantic triangle between outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), his wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), and local sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) is also a fugue for a bastard who’s tangled up the lives of others. Backstory is minimal. Moments, gestures tell all. Affleck’s self-regarding man who would be a small god has some of the jumbled confidence of a Nick Ray antihero, confident but callow, and there are scenes that hint at a lost-childhood scene in Ray’s “Lusty Men” that Wim Wenders has also nodded toward. (An abandoned house as hideout; a child’s toy horse as spent currency. The actors are splendid, including Keith Carradine (from Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us,” itself a remake of Ray’s “They Live By Night”). Muted calm suffuses each injured gesture. Ben Foster’s attentive sheriff is calm but hardly restive: mustachioed, quietly bustling inside, his eyes fixed on Ruth. In one of many exquisite images, Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot the luminous, silken “Pariah” and Sundance cinematography award winning “Mother Of George”) shoot Ruth sitting on a porch, finding a pluperfect moment of light to capture Mara’s liquid brown eyes and dimples and fantastically manicured eyebrows: she seems lit from within, electric with caution, presenting a precise face to her world. Lowery’s Texas, simmering, shimmering, altogether gorgeous, is a place of extraordinary ordinariness and the simplest details sing: Ruth’s simple white dress in an early scene, lightly cinched with thin rope, barelegged in boots with the tongues nearly loose; a second-story view of a street corner at dawn, similar to a quietly haunting shot in “Badlands”; a sandwich in wax paper folded just so, fingers tickling the dark under a bar counter, finding, of course, a sawed-off double barrel; shadows as deep as daylight is bright, the warmth of particular shadows that fall to black just past faces. What scenes are not shot at golden hour are shot, boldly, in the hours just beyond. It’s the same commonplace rustication as in his minimal yet rich first feature, “St. Nick,” the story of two children on the run. Spaces and places feel as warmly worn and lived-in as an old man’s boots. There’s a swarming, enveloping score by Curtis Heath and others: sonically, its bountiful sorrow weighs a passel of portent. And what sound design: The thrumming communal rasp of crickets, a kitten’s blurt of miao; the pop-pop of the worn needle in the last grooves of a record on an old jukebox. The characters sometimes sound like their words have been running in their heads for months and years, like the brittle pages of a scrapbook that’s been a hot attic for so many summers and flipped into crumbs. Muldoon’s affectations include “I came across the woods and mountains with no shoes on”; ” I hear people talking about regret but I don’t have any”; “How do I look?” “You look like you.” “That’ll do.” And Rooney murmurously bites off her share of lines like “Ah kin handle some kittens at least.” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is an exquisitely tinged fable for a nation of art houses that hardly still stand. “Where you headed?” a man asks Muldoon and he answers, “That direction hadn’t been invented yet.” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is rich with reinvention: that’s more than a beginning. (Ray Pride)
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens Friday, August 30 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.