What happens when lovers on the run stop running, in the affecting Ain't Them Bodies Saints 

Saints and Sinners

Saints and Sinners

Put a blade of grass in your movie somewhere these days, and people are going to say you're aping Terrence Malick. But even though the opening of David Lowery's involving first feature Ain't Them Bodies Saints comes straight outta Badlands — a desperate young outlaw couple takes it on the lam after a crime spree — the movie more closely resembles one of John Sayles' early indie dramas or Carl Franklin's '90s sleeper One False Move, films that emphasized the solid virtue of storytelling through character study. In part, that's because writer-director Lowery (an indie utility man whose credits include editing Shane Carruth's Upstream Color) immediately advances to the situation's more low-key but no less tense aftermath — when the female half of the couple (Rooney Mara, David Fincher's Lisbeth Salander) tries to eke out a quiet new life years later in a small Texas town as a single mom, only to receive word that her volatile ex (Casey Affleck) has escaped prison and is headed back to meet the child he's never seen.

There are additional complications: a shadowy father figure (Keith Carradine, grizzled and magnetic) with divided loyalties, a good-hearted local lawman (Ben Foster) who pines for the mom, unaware that she's wracked with guilt toward him. Cast for once as a courtly good ol' boy, a change from the swaggering psychos he usually plays in movies like 3:10 to Yuma and Hostage, Foster exudes stammering decency — one reason the plot that draws him, Affleck, Mara, Carradine and a hit squad of marauding thugs into a steadily constricting noose develops such tension. If Lowery's undeniably assured debut has a drawback, it's that the tone remains so monochromatically even and stifled. The tradeoff, though, is that when the inevitable violence comes, it has the weight of shock and catharsis — and of lives we care about at stake.

Shot by rising-star indie DP Bradford Young (Pariah) with a pastoral glow, cut with impressive clarity among the various plot strands by Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo, and scored by Daniel Hart with an atmospheric juxtaposition of drone and handclaps that provides a nervous undercurrent, Ain't Them Bodies Saints has the feel of a modern-day Western, with some of the same pleasure in seeing familiar situations play out with subtle variations and renewed conviction — and in the hands of a first-rate ensemble. It opens Friday at The Belcourt, highly recommended to those who enjoyed the Matthew McConaughey vehicle Mud more than any movie they'd seen all year.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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