David Lowery has been around a long time, but chances are you've never heard of him. A multi-hyphenate who has done practically everything in the filmmaking business, his previous features, including 2009's Texas-set St. Nick, came and went without registering much of a blip, and deservedly so. But with his white-hot, layered outlaw romance Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Lowery stakes his claim as a director just now hitting his stride creatively.
With a dark, storybook mood set firmly in the mode of Terrence Malick's Badlands, or perhaps even Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James, Lowery flips the Bonnie & Clyde paradime on its ear. Rooney Mara, venturing as far away from Lisbeth Salander as imaginable, plays Ruth Guthrie, a Texas woman with a deep Southern twang and a deep love for Bob Muldoon(Casey Affleck). From the very first, elegantly framed scene, Lowery establishes their bond as the two are embroiled in a passionate argument, which comes to an abrupt end once Bob learns she's pregnant. The two make up an outlaw pair, and after a robbery they find themselves in a bloody shoot out with the cops, leading to the death of a member of their gang. Also shot in the melee is cop Patrick Wheeler(Ben Foster), and when all the dust has settled, Ruth and Bob are taken in with him taking the fall.
With Ruth set free mostly due to her pregnancy, four years pass with Bob writing her a letter from prison every single day. Sentenced to 25 years, he vows to one day return to her and their daughter, attempting escape five times before finally succeeding on the sixth. In the meanwhile, Patrick has begun sniffing around Ruth, feeling a empathic closeness to the woman many perceive as being duped into a life of crime. But Ruth is no saint. She's first and foremost a survivor, recognizing that the same forces that drew her to Bob all those years ago are the same ones that must keep him away from her and their daughter.
Daniel Hart's rousing fiddle and handclap-laden score signals a coming reckoning, as Bob seeks to reclaim the family he already lost once. While violence is mostly kept to a minimum, when it happens it's quick and brutal, captured in dusty and dimly-lit landscapes that harken back to the old West. While Lowery keeps the narrative straight-forward and linear, the scope of his vision is grand and lyrical, bringing a timeless quality. Bob's narrow focus gets a bit more complicated with the interference of Skerritt(Keith Carradine), Ruth's friend and guardian who has helped her build a life over the years. As Bob's circuitous route leads closer to Texas, Skerritt goes to dangerous lengths to keep him away, while at the same time Patrick and Ruth have become even closer.
It's not a stretch to say that both Mara and Affleck give career best performances here. While we only see them together for a few minutes, their romantic moments are memorable and heartfelt, carrying through as the film's true driving force. But it may be Ben Foster who is the real scene stealer, proving once and for all he can be a leading man who smolders as much as any other. Always a screen chameleon of sorts, his turn as the gentle and curious Patrick is especially impressive when compared to his other Sundance performance as famed beatnik William Burroughs in Kill Your Darlings.
At only about 90 minutes in length, Lowery packs a lot of story without ever taking a harried approach. In fact, there are times when perhaps he's a bit too casual, especially when stepping away from Bob's quest or Ruth's struggles. For all the slow dread Lowery teases us with, we never quite get the bloodthirsty showdown we were all expecting. While anticlimactic only in that regard, Lowery more than makes up for it with an intense and emotionally draining climax that feels natural to this particular story and these characters. It will be interesting to see how it gets marketed, but they may want to start by proclaiming Ain't Them Bodies Saints one of the most impressive films to emerge out of Sundance. With its cast and director all but poised for greatness, we may be talking about it for a very long time.