** (out of four)
It’s totally bonkers for a film to feature characters separated for nearly four years and not provide a vivid sense of the absence felt and circumstances changed during that time.
In “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” writer-director David Lowery clearly doesn’t know what to emphasize. We see only flickers of the robbery that lands Bob (Casey Affleck) in jail and separates him from Ruth (Rooney Mara), who’s pregnant with his child. Years later, when Bob escapes, we don’t see much of the guy leaving prison and sparking a chase. Aiming for stark minimalism that just comes off as self-conscious, Lowery seems to think he’s too elegant for actual drama.
Many have accused Lowery of biting from early Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven”), but I can live with a few familiar glares of sunlight and wheat stalks blowing in the wind. At first, it seems Lowery actually understands something the over-praised Malick doesn’t: People do matter in a story. The first few minutes of “Saints” quickly establish intimacy as Ruth fears Bob leaving her during the hold-up, insisting, “I will leave you first.” Later, during a monologue about his escape, Bob quotes himself as saying, “Sir, I used to be the devil, and now I’m just a man.” That’s crisp dialogue, but it’s just for show when a movie that starts as something turns into nothing.
Maybe Lowery thought he was approaching the slow-moving wonder of Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” which also featured Affleck. Like a short film extended to feature length, “Saints,” however, is just slooooow, with scraps of character and no clear sense of anyone’s relationship. Even Ruth asks a cop played by Ben Foster why he’s always hanging around, and it’s a fair question. Like Ruth’s years of anticipating her man’s return, you just sit in front of “Saints” feeling frustrated and bored, waiting for it to end.
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