We don't learn a lot about the characters in the stylish drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints. We know little more than what motivates them. Love. Money. Fear. In some cases, compassion. The story is simple. A man (Casey Affleck) breaks out of prison and tries to make his way home to his wife (Rooney Mara) and their young daughter. Does he make it? Ain't telling.
Set in the 1970s, writer-director David Lowery's film draws on the iconography of mid-20th-century Western movies. Men wear cowboy hats and brood. A sunset glows in an infinite Texas sky. But Ain't Them Bodies Saints departs from that tradition in a crucial way. Cinematographer Bradford Young shoots many scenes in shadow, which means that the actors' faces often are hard to make out. It's a mistake.
In terms of story, the film resembles High Noon (1952) -- will the outlaw show up or not? But High Noon takes place in, obviously, broad daylight. As with Lowery's film, we aren't told a lot about the characters, and that's good. We look at close-ups of Gary Cooper's craggy, immaculately lit face, preferably 30 feet high, on a big screen, and we fill in the blanks.
Lowery hides his characters' faces, and he fills in too many blanks. His film is heavy on atmospherics, on cues as to how we should be reacting to the story. In addition to the moody lighting, there are crickets loudly chirping, trains droning in the distance. There is also the score by Daniel Hart, which is almost comically oppressive. You've never heard such ominous banjo playing. A story this elemental is powerful when it is told starkly, but Lowery seems to back away from starkness.
There is also, paradoxically, too much story, too many additional plot lines. A kindly lawman (Ben Foster) does favors for the Mara character. Three hat-wearing villains drift in and out. An older man (Keith Carradine) runs a curiously anachronistic general store. The story of High Noon is summarized perfectly in Tex Ritter's terse, unforgettable theme song. I tried composing a few lines for an equivalent theme song to Ain't Them Bodies Saints, but I got bogged down after the second carjacking.
All of the characters are archetypes, and maybe the film would benefit from one or two fewer archetypes. True, Carradine is good at archetypal. He's looking craggy himself these days, in the Gary Cooper mode, and I like the unsmiling intensity he brings to this performance. He plays a kind of surrogate father to the characters played by Affleck and Mara, who also do fine work.
Truly, everyone does fine work. This is a thoughtful, well-designed film. But the material calls for simplicity. It doesn't need sprucing up.