'Ain't Them Bodies Saints': I dunno, but they ain't no `Bonnie & Clyde'

I knew Bonnie & Clyde (or feel that I did, from their immortal 1967 film incarnation). Bob & Ruth are no Bonnie & Clyde. They're a kind of B&C on Valium in the oddly titled "Ain't Them Bodies Saints."

The moody blues and pictorial beauty of this latter-day Western, by indie director David Lowery, bowled 'em over at the most recent Sundance festival. Set in the stark Texas hill country between Dallas and Austin, it's a tale of young outlaws (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) who pull off a big robbery -- without an exit plan.

Bob and Ruth are wildly in love. She's pregnant. The initial post-crime euphoria is soon interrupted by the arrival of The Law. In the ensuing bloody battle, their partner is killed and a deputy sheriff is shot by Ruth.

Bob is nothing if not well-intentioned. But if a bad decision can be made, you can count on Bob to make it: He gallantly takes the rap for Ruth and endures the first four years of a long sentence, obsessively writing her every day while she obsessively devotes herself to their child. (Motherhood settles you down.)

An unlikely prison break propels him toward a delusional reunion with her and the daughter he's never met back home, while efforts to find him seem minimal at best: The chore of recapturing this dangerous fugitive is left largely to the recovered deputy (Ben Foster), who is meanwhile falling in love -- and into a protective role -- with the woman who almost killed him.

Director Lowery, primarily an editor with a string of short films to his credit, has a sole previous feature, "St. Nick" (2009), about a brother and sister on the run -- for unexplained reasons -- living in abandoned houses and escaping harsh reality, however briefly. The theme is clearly a favorite of Mr. Lowery's, whose stylistics borrow much from Terrence Malick's romanticized evocations of brooding outsiders linked to the landscapes and limitations of their environment.

Add Robert Altman's great "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" to Mr. Lowery's influences from the doomed-outlaw-lovers genre, and we get lots of slow, lingering tracking shots at dusk -- images of isolation, set to spare melancholy music and natural atmospheric sounds, with few conversations or conventional plot devices. Mr. Lowery prefers internal monologues (and solo letter-reading) to dialogue.

So does his antiheroic Bob, a "deeply decent idealist" -- deeply dumb, in both senses of the word, except in his strange soliloquies. Mr. Affleck plays him soulfully, reminding us that he's a skillful actor in his own right, independent of big bro Ben. (He would've won that Oscar for best supporting actor in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" had he not been up against Javier Bardem for "No Country for Old Men.") His diffident Bob -- who thinks he can "settle down, open a shop," be a family man now -- speaks in a high-pitched mumble with unique Affleck-tations.

The charismatic Ms. Mara, aka "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," has an even more mesmerizing voice but spends most of her time bonding and becoming a textbook single mother to her daughter, while being gently pursued by a textbook father-surrogate in the form of the deputy.

(Ms. Rooney has been busy in Texas these days: She just finished shooting a new film there, directed by -- guess who? -- Terrence Malick! It features two intersecting love triangles against a backdrop of the music scene in Austin, co-starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Natalie Portman.)

Nate Parker does a nice turn as the owner of a gloriously seedy bar, where Bob hides out, and crusty Keith Carradine -- unrecognizable from his "Nashville" heyday -- is effective as the local Greek chorus. Not so effective is the trio of bad hombres -- cardboard cutouts straight out of "A Fistful of Dollars" -- who provide some obligatory violence at the end. Daniel Hart's terrific bluegrass score helps compensate for them but can't, by itself, make this film the "folk song" Mr. Lowery wishes it to be.

So am I too fussy for quibbling about story and character issues when I just should be concentrating on the mood? It's experimental, I know. Mr. Lowery is a graduate of the Sundance screenwriting lab. They evidently don't stress plot points there. Nothing wrong with a rumination on anomie. Bonnie & Clyde meet Bergman (Ingmar, not Ingrid).

BTW, the film's unintelligible title seems to be an in-joke. According to Mr. Affleck, it stems from the director's misquotation of a certain song lyric "and has no actual meaning." How perfectly fascinating -- and preciously annoying.

As if the movie itself wasn't esoteric enough.

Mr. Lowery says he set out to make an action film but became more intrigued by "the spaces in between." He, and everyone else, gets lost in them. Bob & Ruth's Last Tango in Texas has virtuosic visuals but, overall, the existential Ponderosa they inhabit is too ponderous for its own good.



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