“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” [premiering in competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival] has a great title, great cinematography, great original score and great leading lady in rising star Rooney Mara. But the biggest feature yet from indie writer-director-editor David Lowery doesn’t quite synthesize all of its impressive parts into a great film.
Made with an obvious debt to filmmaker Terrence Malick yet finding a voice and style all its own, “Saints” opens with crazy-in-love couple Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck), whose outlaw antics we’re aware of but never see. Almost immediately after the film begins, Bob is sent to prison and Ruth gives birth to their daughter before the movie jumps forward four years to tell the bulk of its story.
Ruth has quietly readjusted to life in a sleepy Texas town, raising her daughter (twins Kennadie Smith and Jacklynn Smith seamlessly share the role) and attracting the attention of local lawman Patrick (Ben Foster), too timid to share how he really feels. When Bob inexplicably breaks out of jail, he’s determined to reunite with Ruth. He never imagines she might prefer things just the way they are.
“Saints” unfolds at a deliberate pace, avoids rooting itself in a specific time period and seems purposefully calculated to avoid the conventions of classic tales of outlaw lovers: there’s very little action (don’t expect to see the robbery or the jailbreak, but do expect a couple of shoot outs) and an extremely skewed romance. Lowery does a fine job compensating for what audiences might expect with striking images and dedicated performances from his cast — also including the very fine Keith Carradine and Nate Parker — but the love triangle never really catches fire.
The audience knows what the characters want long before they do and waiting for them to catch up to their own emotions makes the film feel twice as long as it really is. Still, there’s considerable reason to be excited about Lowery’s future and “Saints” is likely to find a receptive audience thanks to its style and sensitivity.