There's a hushed mysticism in the voice of Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) as he describes his escape from jail to the bartender of a Texas juke joint. "I used to be the devil," he says, until a "higher calling" possessed him. And one day, he called out his escape in advance to the guards, like Babe Ruth pointing out to center field — on the morning he predicted, the bars of his cell miraculously slid open and let him walk right out the front door. The bartender, smirking, responds: "The news says you jumped off a work truck." Bob changes the subject.
A lot of the people involved in director David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints want desperately to believe in the grandiose myths they're spinning, even as they know in their hearts that said myths are fundamentally lies. Foremost among these people might be Lowery himself, who has created an interesting contradiction here — he's summoned up a swooning, romantic rush of imagery and sound to tell a decidedly unromantic story about doomed lovers and self-destructive tendencies.
When we first see Bob and Ruth (Rooney Mara), the small-town Texas lovers are glowing — Lowery likes to frame his characters just so between the camera and the setting sun to grant them a lens-flare halo. She's pregnant, he's got a score planned, and the eventual result (in the hazy rush of the film's first 10 minutes) is a standoff with police where a kindly lawman (Ben Foster) takes a bullet in the shoulder from Ruth's gun.
Bob gives himself up to take the blame, promising in jailhouse letters that he'll find his way back to Ruth and the daughter he's never met soon enough. But complications abound once he finds his way out — there's a pair of hired guns set on his trail by a former crime-partner/father figure (Keith Carradine), and there's the fact that the lawman is now courting Ruth himself. (Making his own myth, he sees a damsel-in-distress, unaware that she is the one who shot him.)
This is familiar plot territory, certainly — combined with Lowery's fetish for gorgeous plains bathed in amber light, the film sometimes feels like a fan-fiction sequel to Terrence Malick's Badlands. But the film is at its best when it evokes another god of '70s cinema. Robert Altman's stamp is all over Saints in the way the movie attacks genre conventions and the convictions of its delusional dreamers — the antique shop owners spinning nonsense about the history of an old pistol, the outlaws who are crushed to hear that they aren't as notorious as they thought themselves to be, the lovers so eager to ignore the flaws in their object of desire. And there's also the way that violence punctuates segments of rapturous beauty like an ugly, clumsy slap. (Keith Carradine was also an Altman regular, playing his own version of the condemned outlaw in the director's Thieves Like Us.)
It may be true that Lowery overdoes it with the atmosphere — he's so focused on capturing a gorgeous, tactile beauty in his images that he ends up not conveying much specificity or sense of real place. Saints is ostensibly set in the 1970s, but there's no mention of the era's culture or any technology past the jukebox. The film's real setting is a genericized, non-specific American past set to a too-busy score of handclaps and mournful fiddles — the stuff of grand American legends, sure, but also of faux-rustic Levi's commercials.
But the actors make it work for the most part. Affleck and Mara are perfectly cast here. The words are always moonshine-and-vinegar confidence with Affleck's Bob, but the actor's nervous quaver always undermine them — he's an actor whose shows of confidence always feel like a front. Mara, who was so good at poking holes in Mark Zuckerberg's self-made mystique in The Social Network, is here again the realist among self-aggrandizers as Ruth, forced to keep her feet on the dirt for her daughter's sake. And Foster, who has spent much of his career playing disturbed wild men, is particularly touching here as a gentle, wounded soul.
The title of Ain't Them Bodies Saints is Lowery's incorrectly-remembered version of a phrase from a folk song — he discovered it was wrong when he checked back on the lyrics but liked the ring of the words anyway. And the film bearing that title follows in the same spirit — attempting to find poetry in a hazy dream of the past. It's easy, even fair, to call bullshit on the spirit of a project that indulges in the same delusions it also wants to pick apart. Then again, every time we go to the movies, what else are we doing besides trying to find beauty and truth in a grand, seductive lie?
Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Opens Aug. 30, Criterion Cinemas, 86 Temple St., New Haven, (203) 498-2500