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Great-looking sentimental 'Saints' has a few holes in narrative

IFC Films
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints.'

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By Kristin Tillotson
Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

If going on the lam always looked this gorgeous, everyone would do it.

“Ain't Them Bodies Saints” is about the love between a lower-key Bonnie and Clyde circa 1970s, but the more intense affair is between writer-director David Lowery and what he sees through the camera. Whether it's the rural Texas landscape or a closeup of a face hollowed by longing, he visually caresses each scene the same way Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) gaze into each other's eyes.

The movie begins with resolute Bob and reluctant Ruth involved in a country shootout with the cops that sends Bob off to prison, leaving Ruth to give birth to their daughter alone. Several years later, he escapes and makes his stealthy way back to fetch his family.

Affleck hauls out his well-established acting chops, alternately eliciting sympathy and suspicion, looking like a sociopathic creep one moment, a love-tortured soul the next. Mara softly shines in her most romantic role to date, a prairie flower with a steely core. Ben Foster, who first showed promise as Claire's sensitive beau in “Six Feet Under,” fulfills it here as a mustachioed straight-arrow sheriff (wounded in the shootout) with a soft spot for Ruth and her daughter.

A filmmaker's film, “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” got a lot of praise at Sundance, where Lowery, a former film editor, had workshopped his screenplay. If only his attention to story had been as meticulous as his shooting.

Subtle character development and strong acting are offset by a narrative that leaves dots unconnected. But it's sentimental in the best sense, never dipping into smarminess. When Bob and Ruth are led away in handcuffs from the barn where they were holed up after the shootout, they can't help but crane their faces toward each other, touching cheeks as if their flesh is actually being torn apart. It feels raw, and real, and sets a tone that is sustained throughout.

Kristin Tillotson writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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