With “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” writer-director David Lowery has set out to make an outlaw film, and a very particular kind. The movie’s a precise, self-conscious — and often staggeringly beautiful — emulation of the ’70s work of Robert Altman and Terence Malick, specifically the former’s “Thieves Like Us” (1974) and the latter’s “Days of Heaven” (1978). If you’re going to evoke another filmmaker’s style, you might as well aim high.
And in fact “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has a kind of heartland holiness about it, even as you realize the story’s not adding up to much. Casey Affleck plays Bob Muldoon, a taciturn bank robber in Depression-era Texas. Early in the film, he’s brought to ground by the police, along with his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) and a confederate; the wife wings a cop during the shootout but Bob takes the rap and goes to jail. Three years later, after their daughter Sylvie (played by twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) is born, he escapes from prison and comes back for Ruth. That’s pretty much all there is to the plot.
But Lowery is after poetry, not narrative — the kind of golden-hour camerawork (courtesy of cinematographer Bradford Young) and folkish soundtrack lyricism (composer Daniel Hart) that will render these characters inarticulate angels. The third point on the movie’s triangle is Wheeler (Ben Foster), the sad-eyed deputy sheriff who was wounded in the gun battle and, not knowing Ruth fired the shot, worships her at a close distance. You can’t really blame him, since Mara has the gaunt loveliness of a Dorothea Lange portrait.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” moves at a crawl, but it holds you in a spell, so precious and charged are its images. At the same time, the characters are a little too ordinary to care for deeply. Where Altman saw his young outlaw couple, played by Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine, as childlike innocents, and the lovers in “Days of Heaven” were doomed by the sin of the lies they told, Bob and Ruth fall nebulously in the middle. They’re ultimately too small for the immensity of Lowery’s vision.
It’s a secondhand vision, when all is said and done, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing when the craft is rapturous. The borrowing extends to the casting of Carradine himself as the back-country crime lord who’s a substitute father to Bob; laconic and grizzled, the actor brings with him the genetic memory of those long-ago films and the vanished filmmaking world in which they were made. Lowery has made a shrine to his actors, to the land through which they move, and to the kind of cinema that once sustained us. It’s worth a pause at the church door.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.