Grass sways in the summer breeze, the sun peaks majestically through the clouds, and soothing voices whisper sweet nothings on the soundtrack. No, Terrence Malick hasn’t done the unthinkable and released two movies in one year. The director has instead gained a new disciple, a fellow Texan with an eye for the near-divine beauty of the American Southwest. With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, indie upstart David Lowery mimics the mythic methodology of his revered elder, drowning the sparse tale of an on-the-run convict and his lonely baby’s mama in lots of dreamy, magic-hour atmosphere. Here’s the rub, though: Even Malick’s lesser works, like this spring’s To The Wonder, add up to more than the sum of their lyrical parts. They have big ideas, bigger emotions, and a sense of dramatic urgency—all qualities fatally absent from this well-shot but bloodless crime fable. Lowery, it can’t be denied, has Malick’s moves down pat. It’s the Malick touch that eludes him.
As in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, another recent spiritual descendant of Badlands, Casey Affleck plays a weary, wanted bank robber named Bob. Saints, which is set in ’70s Texas, basically begins with the apprehension of this desperado, who takes the rap for wounding a local lawman (Ben Foster), when the real culprit is his pregnant wife (a sleepy-eyed Rooney Mara). Four years later, Affleck busts out of the big house; that the escape happens off-camera is emblematic of Lowery’s perverse aversion to incident—though we do get an amusing anecdote about the event, a rare moment of levity in a film that could have used more of them. While Affleck lays low at a friend’s bar and plots his route home, Mara raises her daughter alone; occasionally, she politely rebukes Foster’s gentle advances. Across the street, quiet benefactor Keith Carradine watches with inscrutable interest. His presence seems less essential to the story than to the iconography, as it provides Lowery with a walking, (sometimes) talking callback to Robert Altman’s great ’70s outlaw sagas.
Light on plot and heavy on pregnant, significant pauses, Saints presents a simple, meat-and-potatoes genre scenario and treats it with the solemn seriousness of a sermon. Even as the screws begin to tighten on Affleck, who’s hunted not just by the law but also by his vengeful ex-colleagues, no traces of genuine danger disrupt the film’s “poetic” lethargy. Having put his Malick fetish to much better use as an editor on Upstream Color—to which he applied the time-and-space-traversing ellipticism of The Tree Of Life—Lowery leans heavily here on his collaborators, especially Pariah cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Daniel Hart (whose banjo-and-strings score is a blatant Nick Cave imitation). Stuck playing abstract concepts instead of characters, Affleck and Mara are so subdued that they often seem in danger of nodding off mid-scene. In terms of real personality, only Foster shows up for work; the young character actor, who grows sharper with every unheralded supporting turn, invests his heartsick sheriff with true soulfulness—and, notably, he does so without the aid of hushed voiceover. Just imagine what this guy could do in a real Malick movie.