Ain't Them Bodies Saints wants to be murky and oblique. I wanted to rewind it. Not for its dusky visuals or folksy dialogue—I wanted to re-see scenes so shrouded in darkness that I could barely make out the characters' faces.
With Ain't Them Bodies, writer-director David Lowery has made a mahogany-tinged, neo-noir Western set in an arid Texas of the 1970s. But in striving for moody melodrama, he's forgotten to keep his actors' faces (and their dialogue) discernible. The film revolves around a young couple who've committed a robbery and left a police officer shot and wounded. The pregnant Ruth (Rooney Mara) pulled the trigger, but Bob (Casey Affleck) takes the rap, and he goes off to prison while she stays in their small dusty town to raise their predictably sweet daughter. Bob escapes from jail; there's a nighttime foot chase through a swamp (that scene could have used brighter moonlight); someone bleeds out by film's end.
The problem is that Lowery's initially successful spare approach—he shows the aftermath rather than the crime itself, the tears that follow the bad news rather than the message itself—turns agonizingly muddy as the film progresses. He either shrouds significant scenes in shadow or signifies them with a hand clap-heavy score that quickly loses its novelty. Perhaps as a way to obscure the well-worn narrative arc, cinematographer Bradford Young casts the whole film in shades of caramel, sepia and amber and then covers it all in a film of dust and a cloud of smoke, just to be sure. But we've seen this sooty rendering of naively lawless, pretty young things in rural Texas before, this world of chiaroscuro saloons, splintery clapboard houses and fields forever caught in magic-hour light. Here, the whole thing feels tired.
Even so, both Mara and Affleck turn in impressive performances, neither of which stumbles into cliché: She's maternal but determined and hard; he's wounded but ardent and dignified. The supporting actors are strong as well, including an understated Ben Foster as the wounded cop who winds up courting Ruth, and Keith Carradine as the town's tough and protective patriarch. But with everything else so cloaked in darkness and dust, these powerful performers just get swallowed up.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: Ain't Them Bodies Saints is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.