David Lowery's strangely-titled Ain't Them Bodies Saints doesn't just tip its hat to a bygone era of film-making, but attempts to completely recreate the heavily visual but emotionally complex work that swept through cinemas during the 1970's, especially in America. The early work of Terrence Malick is a particular inspiration here, as vast Texas fields and looming thunderclouds play as the backdrop to the doomed love-story at its centre. On top of being a love- letter to one of finest ever decades for cinema, it manages to tell a compelling, if often isolating, little story in its own right.
Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are two reckless young lovers. We meet them in the midst of an argument that is quickly laughed off as Ruth announces she is with child, but it doesn't take long for their passionate romance to be cut short. When Bob drags Ruth into his world of petty crime, they find themselves locked in a shoot-out with the police that ends when Ruth wounds Deputy Wheeler (Ben Foster). Bob takes the blame and is incarcerated for 25 years to life, and the two attempt to maintain their relationship through written correspondence. A few years later, Ruth learns through the lonely Wheeler that Bob has escaped from prison and is no doubt coming for her.
The film moves into more predictable territory following Bob's escape, as we follow him on his slow-burning journey across state lines, employing the assistance of friend Sweetie (Nate Parker) to help him creep gradually closer to Ruth without being detected. As Ruth struggles between longing for her true love and the realisation that running off with a now-hardened criminal may not be the best thing for her daughter, Wheeler lets his affections known. A gentle, morally-upright man respected in the community, he offers her a safe passage and undoubtedly a better life, but Ruth still finds herself drawn to the dangerous outlaw lifestyle. Her father Skerritt (Keith Carradine), having watched over Bob as a child, has a somewhat resentful sympathy for their love, and warns Bob of a group of ne'er-do-wells who arrives in town in search of him.
The cast are excellent in their roles and compliment Lowery's desire to tell an emotionally complex story with fewer words than you would expect. Affleck is at his best when he is carefully treading the line between volatile and gentle, injecting Bob with a sympathy despite his characters occasional dark turn, and Mara perfectly captures Ruth's inward struggle between comfort and danger. Yet most impressive of all is Foster, toning down his usual wide-eyed shtick and showing a softer side perhaps not seen since Six Feet Under. For all its melancholic poetic narration and tormented gazes into the distance, the film tends to betray this approach when the dialogue comes, as the character spell out their predicaments when there's no call for it. More frustratingly, Lowery keeps the mysterious aspects of his movie a bit too close to the chest, as the reasons behind the appearance of the men hunting for Bob's head is teased but left infuriatingly unexplained. A bit like the title, it is alluring but seemingly hollow.