'Saints' has hints of Malick, Altman ★★★

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Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips and Matt Fagerholm of Indie-outlook.com discuss IFC's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." (Posted on: August 29, 2013)

A nation lousy with unglamorous crime cries out for the fake stuff, at least in song and in the movies. We love our criminals treated with tender regard and a touch of the poet.

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is a cinematic ballad from writer-director David Lowery, here making his second feature. It's about a couple of small-town thieves and outlaws in love: Bob, played by Casey Affleck, and Ruth, played by Rooney Mara. Carefully calibrated and not long on words — though Lowery rarely fails to let a gunshot victim go on a bit before expiring — the movie set in the Texas Hill Country tells its story cleanly and well. The romanticism is considerable, but that's nothing new in the realm of those living fast and, depending on their luck, dying young.

With his camera scampering after Bob and Ruth in the prologue, as they run through fields, Lowery lays it all out in the opening chorus. "I don't want to go to jail," Ruth says. Then, a few beats later: "And I think I'm gonna have a baby." Soon enough we're in the middle of a scene other movies might've saved for a climax. The vagabond lovers square off against the police, as Bob and Ruth crouch for safety in a ramshackle abandoned house in the middle of picturesque nowhere.

Ruth shoots one of the cops; he's played by Ben Foster, in a wonderfully laconic change-up role for someone typically seen on the edge of sociopathic hysteria. Bob takes the rap for Ruth, goes to jail and the exonerated Ruth gives birth to an angelic daughter. Bob breaks out of prison four years later. "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" has its characters tell the audience exactly what's going to happen next, if they have their way.

The reward is mainly in the performances. For example: Keith Carradine plays a supporting role as Ruth's protector, a local man who knows Bob is coming around to claim his old life, against terrible odds. The 1970s movies emulated here by Lowery include Terrence Malick's "Badlands" and, in the slow zooms of the camera, prime Robert Altman. Since he popped up and broke hearts in Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," Carradine has learned a wealth of practical acting knowledge about how much and how little need be done at any given moment. He provides the on-screen link to those earlier days and brings the natural authority a director craves in a performer.

Affleck is a different story. Nobody has a voice like his, uniquely pitched to keep an audience off-guard. He has great instincts when it comes to morally compromised anti-heroes, and without trolling for our sympathy, Affleck's Bob is more than just a collection of behaviors; it's a smartly considered performance. If the actor's vocal delivery has a way of swallowing certain lines, provoking tiny little thought balloons reading "whaddhesay?" to appear over the heads of moviegoers everywhere, well … there's more to life, and to film, than fantastic diction.

In David Fincher's "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" remake, Mara concentrated so hard on her character's steely ferocity she didn't seem quite human. In "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," the twangy Americana brings out a warmth in Mara. She's the still pond in relation to Affleck's wild river. The look of the movie, as photographed by cinematographer Bradford Young, is heavy on the rusty reds and beautiful early evening and early morning skies. The score by Daniel Hart hustles the hustlers along their way, with a stringy, percussive folk sound recalling any 10 bands heard at the most recent Lollapalooza, but tastefully so. The title, Affleck has said, means nothing; Lowery simply mis-remembered a song lyric somewhere along the way, and stuck with it.

It is not a large film. But Lowery may well be a large talent, and he sure knows how to cast the right actors.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for some violence)

Running time: 1:35

Opens: Friday

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