Long before its title credit comes up, writer-director David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" establishes a gorgeously elegiac tone. From the opening shot, in which outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) engages in a scuffle with fellow robber and wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) before learning that she's pregnant, Lowery conveys a hauntingly antiquated world that transcends its routine plot. As beautifully shot as it is performed by its two leads, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" channels genre expectations into sheer poetry.
"This was in Texas," reads a hand-scrawled introductory note, which defines the environment using the same casual abstractions found throughout the movie. Cinematographer Bradford Young ("Pariah") captures wide open vistas that lend a storybook feel both strangely alien and familiar. The prologue surveys the four years that Bob spends behind bars after an ill-fated police showdown; Ruth goes free and gives birth to their child. While Bob and Ruth trade notes as the years fly past, Daniel Hart's uplifting score heightens the emotional weight at hand as the couple's daughter grows into a wide-eyed toddler (alternately played by twins Kennedie and Jacklynn Smith).
The ensuing miniscule narrative finds Bob escaping from prison off-camera and slowly making his way back to a conflicted Ruth, whose allegiances may have shifted from the promise of a future life with her husband to the best decision for her daughter. That situation is complicated by a nosy detective (Ben Foster) and Ruth's fatherly guardian Skerritt (Keith Carradine), a man intent on keeping Bob from endangering his wife and daughter.
As things grow increasingly dire, Lowery gradually chisels away at the scenario and constructs an extraordinary paean to ghostly southern imagery imbued with a lyricism reflective of his grand literary ambitions. Lowery has mentioned Robert Altman's revisionist western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" as a key inspiration, but "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" equally suggests a less spiritual take on Terrence Malick's cosmic visions of men and women dwarfed by natural wonders much sturdier than any of their flawed pursuits.
Vaguely set in the 1970s, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" falls in line with a tradition of filmmaking that favors mood over all else, but Affleck and Mara -- in a pair of focused, serious-minded turns on par with their best work -- bring a credibility to their characters that elevates the high-stakes proceedings to an involving drama. They're aided in that process by a series of murky locations, from shadowy bars to dilapidated country homes, that deepen the atmosphere at every turn.
For the precious few familiar with Lowery's previous feature, the minimalist kids-on-the-lam tale "St. Nick," the filmmaker's new work displays a natural evolution. While Lowery lingers in quiet moments and draws out certain scenes to the point where they start to drift away from a generally enthralling pace, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" maintains a strong linear approach that makes the collage of cinematic trickery more philosophically engaging than in his previous work. "We did what we did and that is who we are," Bob says early on, an assertion tested as Ruth faces her lingering doubts.
While leaving much unsaid, Lowery doesn't leave everything up to the imagination: The tense climax, involving a superbly choreographed nighttime pursuit, breaches the subdued rhythm with supreme calculation. It's easy to figure where "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is heading shortly after all the pieces are put in place, but the surprises of how they get there arrive in every scene. While the tragic Bob may have placed himself in impossible circumstances, his commitment to impossible ideals gives the movie its literal voice: "People don't know things the way they think they know them," he says. That's certainly the case for the mold of storytelling that "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" brilliantly transforms into a fresh experience.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Hyped well ahead of Sundance and well-received at its premiere, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" will probably continue to garner acclaim on the European festival circuit. The Weinstein Company, which is handling international rights, could make a bid for U.S. distribution, but many other companies are interested in taking this movie to the arthouse market it could easily succeed in.