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'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' abuses a promising script and great actors

The neo-western "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" misapplies a Terrence Malick homage on what should have been a terrific neo-western.

Casey Affleck cradles Rooney Mara in the neo-western "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." Credit: IFC Films Casey Affleck cradles Rooney Mara in the neo-western "Ain't Them Bodies Saints."
Credit: IFC Films

‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Terrence Malick was an established master even before he got around to making a third movie. But he has curiously few copycats. For a while, his only major protege was David Gordon Green, whose “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” made like Malick and mixed lyrical montages with off-hand voiceover. “Mud”’s Jeff Nichols broke through with his stylistic homage “Shotgun Stories.” And now there’s David Lowery, who has applied the Malick aesthetic to a script to which it doesn’t quite fit, and in fact ruins.

For Lowery, it’s a form of self-abuse: He’s the one who wrote the script that he, as a director, wrecked. Casey Affleck plays Bob Muldoon, an outlaw who takes the fall for his girl, Ruth (Rooney Mara), who critically wounded an officer, Patrick (Ben Foster), during a shoot-out. Ruth remains free to give birth to their child, and even starts a hesitant almost-relationship with Patrick. But Bob’s love cannot be bound for long, and he escapes to reclaim what’s his.

Somewhere on a series of external hard drives lies the footage for a terrific, beautifully acted neo-western, where hard, grizzled truths sit side by side with a portrait of passion running right into cold reality. These are swallowed in the presentation, which keeps lathering up a montage-heavy storm. The film never calms down: It’s all broad strokes and pomp, with a score that keeps insisting what we see is a larger-than-life murder ballad. Complex characters are easily reduced to types: The Outlaw who wanted His Girl but had to go through The Cop.

It's script and terrific performances versus direction, the latter “winning.” Keith Carradine has never been better, all weathered and rueful as a mysterious associate of Bob’s who feels compelled to look after Ruth. But his work is cut to ribbons. Affleck, Mara and Foster work hard to give nuance to their characters, to portray them as more than types. But it’s a losing battle, given that Lowery has the final word of how much of their performances we see. Lowery the director does little but show off his editing prowess, at the expense of all the elements of his film that are genuinely fresh and excellent. In some cases, such a clash would produce fascinating results (as in some Malick films, in fact). But here, the script and actors seem to be doing something far more revelatory than the man directing them.

 
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