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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' delivers strong acting

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Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck star in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." (IFC)

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Ben Foster plays Patrick Wheeler in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." (IFC)

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS

(R)

2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Way back in 1978 — after making just two features — filmmaker Terrence Malick pulled a Howard Hughes and essentially vanished into thin air for 20 years. Considered indispensible by most critics, scholars, his beyond-obsessive fans and (most importantly) other filmmakers, those two movies (“Days of Heaven” and “Badlands”) are the epitome of the “tone poem” micro-genre.

A more than obvious devotee and studier of Malick, writer/director David Lowery — in much the same manner that Brian DePalma aped Alfred Hitchcock — has made his own Malick movie and the end result is little more than … well, mere aping. Just like Malick, Lowery chooses period-era Texas as his backdrop, places two doomed lovers in the foreground and the only thing keeping the movie from becoming a complete wash-out are the performances of the four principal players.

Lowery’s first of many “Malicky” moments is with the cold, flat opening scene that plays out like a conversation we’re only privy to halfway through. Clearly upset, Ruth (Rooney Mara) is peeved with her boyfriend Bob (Casey Affleck) after he tells her he’s tired of working for a criminal and wants to strike out on his own. We don’t know what his law-breaking specialty is and as we soon find out, it doesn’t matter. Whatever Bob did was bad enough for lawmen to trap him, Ruth and a cohort (perhaps his boss?) in a house and riddle the building with bullets. Someone dies, policeman Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) is seriously wounded and — without any mention of charges or a trial — Bob is soon in jail serving 25 to life.

All of this takes place in the first five minutes and the jumpy time frame is highly disorienting; we have little idea of when anything is happening and less of an idea why. As the narrative progresses Lowery settles down a bit but there are still a lot of plot holes where he leaves it up to the audience to fill in the gaps as they see fit.

Based on the introduction of a child character we surmise that Bob has been in the slammer about five years and is desperate to reunite with Ruth and start life over with their daughter but since his incarceration Ruth’s life has become somewhat complicated. Her elderly next-door neighbor Skerritt (Keith Carradine) vacillates between being concerned and avuncular to putting his hat in the ring as a possible future paramour. Wheeler is also interested in pursuing a romantic relationship and thinks he’s being low-key and subtle about it, but we and Ruth determine otherwise.

To Ruth’s credit, she keeps both possible suitors at a not-quite arm’s length and is perpetually ambivalent. She does nothing to encourage either man but neither does she point-blank squash their hopes. She also makes it clear that she intends on waiting for Bob to return, not so much out of passion or love so much but because he is the father of her child.

Apart from the early exchange of gunfire, the first hour of the 105 minute film is occupied with long scenes containing sparse dialogue and a whole bunch of atmosphere. It won’t spoil anything to reveal that Bob makes an escape from prison and does all he can to get back to Ruth in Texas. There’s a mention that he’s as close as Missouri and as far away as Montana at various points, although we’re given no reason to believe he hasn’t been in Texas the entire time. Either he or Lowery is lost in a big way.

In addition to Malick, Lowery also pinches from Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World,” Robert Altman’s “Thieves like Us,” the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (which also starred Affleck in an Oscar-nominated performance). Despite several characters’ proclamations to the contrary, we know from the get-go it’s going to end ugly, which is not to say it isn’t poetic or moving. Lowery’s employment of violence is spare but highly effective and he wisely uses it without warning or heavy foreshadowing; like what would happen in real life. He also makes sure never to glamorize or embellish these scenes with garish sound-effects, splatter, slow-motion or multi-angle photography.

There’s a masterpiece lurking within the frames of this movie and Lowery proves he more than knows the ins and outs of the storytelling craft but his fawning attempt at copycatting a master negates all of his considerable efforts. He needs to become his own man and leave his influences behind. (IFC)