Since the Sundance debut of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints back in January, the name of Terrence Malick has been dropped in reference to it nearly as often as that of writer/director David Lowery. The influence, to be sure, is hard to miss: a rural Texas setting; an abundance of sun-kissed, magic-hour photography; even an Affleck, Casey in this film matching Ben in Malick’s spring release, To the Wonder. The comparisons haven’t been entirely flattering. “Lowery, it can’t be denied, has Malick’s moves down pat,” writes The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd. “It’s the Malick touch that eludes him.” Dowd may be right — inasmuch as the “Malick touch” has lately verged on self-parody and narrative inertia. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, on the other hand, is better than anything Malick has made in at least a decade.
Not that Saints is heavy on plot. “This was in Texas,” the opening title reads, and Lowery’s sure sense of place is one of the picture’s finest features; it’s set in the sort of small town where time pretty much stopped, and settles immediately into the leisurely rhythms (of both dialogue and events) of its locale. A few years back, Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) got into some trouble. A shoot-out with local lawmen ensued; Ruth clipped one of them, Patrick (Ben Foster), but Bob took the blame and was sent to the clink. Ruth, pregnant, waited.
Years pass. Their daughter is four. Bob escapes from prison. Ruth is alerted that he’s out (“Thought best that you hear this from a friend”), and isn’t quite sure how she feels about it. Her life is calm and simple, the kind of thing that, oh, an escaped convict is bound to bang up. And there are people who care about her: Skerritt (Keith Carradine, lending a bit of Thieves Like Us mojo to the proceedings), a shop owner who set them up in a nice little house, and Patrick, who has not only forgiven and forgotten, but has grown to love Ruth.
In its broad strokes — lyrical story of young, beautiful Texas outlaws — Ain’t Them Bodies Saints recalls Malick’s Badlands. And the photography certainly owes something to the reclusive auteur; early on, the setting sun peeks out between the protagonists as they wander a picturesque field, and Bob’s jailhouse letters and rambling confessions to his best buddy serve the same function as Malick’s beloved voice-over.
But — and this is the key difference — that’s not where the film’s interior life ends. The direct narration makes Bob’s feelings and intentions clear, but Ruth’s relationships with both Bob and Patrick are conveyed in dialogue, a notion that Malick all but abandoned in his last film. Near the picture’s end, Patrick comes clean with Ruth, and she tries to do the same in return. The dialogue is occasionally poetic, sometimes direct, often hanging equally on what is said, what is omitted, and what is almost stated, then backed away from. Malick would have had Ruth explicitly pontificate her philosophical musings over shots of Rooney Mara twirling in a wheat field. Lowery’s film is interested in subtext; Malick’s films have become, almost entirely, text.
And because he treats his actors as collaborators rather than objects for artistic arrangement, Lowery gets real performances out of them. Affleck and Mara are quiet, reserved, and just plain good, the former conveying the fierce determination of his proud young father (numbskulled though it may be), the latter the complexity of looking at a sensible, safe decision and trying to resist the urge to run the other way. And this is another wonderfully modest performance from Ben Foster, who has become one of our most compelling young character actors.
In focusing on this moment of uncertainty and waiting, Lowery is expanding to feature length what would take up ten, maybe 15 minutes in a conventional picture, but Saints never drags; it’s a model of efficiency and directness (which is to say, there aren’t any dinosaur scenes here). Lowery, himself also an editor (he cut Upstream Color), puts his scenes together with wistful eloquence; a couple of intercut scenes late in the film — particularly the closing scene, weaving the present, the past, and a fantasy of another, imagined future — are genuinely inspired. The attentiveness of that cutting (and the stunning music by Daniel Hart) gives the film a homey, handmade quality. It’s one of the best films of the year, and its shrugging Malick comparisons should be taken with a grain of salt — particularly for those of us whose admiration of the man is held with some reservation and qualification.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints opens tomorrow in limited release. It screens tonight at the Queens County Farm Museum via Rooftop Films.