‘Saints’ swell, but doesn’t seem to fully come to life

There are many things to admire about “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” from its controlled mood to its fine cast to its folkie-fiddle musical score. A great deal of care, and a lot of affection for movie history, went into this low-key Sundance success.

So why am I unconvinced? Maybe everything’s just a little too right, a little too calculated, in writer-director David Lowery’s neo-western-noir. This movie always knows exactly what it’s doing, and that gets a little suffocating.

The ingenious opening reels introduce us to a desperate couple, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck).

Their criminal history is mostly left offscreen, but we witness a showdown with Texas cops that results in Bob taking the blame for a shot fired by the pregnant Ruth. Bob is hustled off to the pokey and four years pass, but the bullet remains lodged in the storyline: Small-town policeman Patrick (Ben Foster), the very officer wounded by Ruth’s gun, is now hanging around her and the baby.

Patrick is a nice man, clearly lovestruck, and he’s probably better for her than callow Bob — but such niceties hardly matter in a doomy scenario like this. Bob has escaped from jail, and we know where his path leads.

Lowery misses few pictorial possibilities with the Texas locations and the movie has an old-time feel despite being set in the 1970s. Yet the location and the period should have quotation marks, because “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” takes place exclusively in a movie universe, aspiring to the tradition of Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” and Terence Malick’s “Badlands.”

And speaking of Malick: As pretty as Bradford Young’s cinematography is here, we might need to call a moratorium on closeups of waving wheat backlighted by “Magic Hour” sunset, because these imitations of the “Tree of Life” director are getting out of hand.

The people onscreen matter, however. Mara, the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, continues to be a novel presence, and she and Affleck are masters of the art of hushed, uninflected vocal delivery.

Affleck doesn’t do anything new here, but Ben Foster does: This incorrigible over-actor (see “Alpha Dog” or “3:10 to Yuma”) has tamped things down to give a gentle performance of great feeling. All of which is admirable — there’s that word again — and consistently interesting to watch. But maybe the film needs less saintliness, and more sinning.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (two and a half stars)

David Lowery’s Sundance success is a low-key tale of criminal lovers (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) separated by his prison sentence — but maybe not for long. The movie’s heavy on small-town Texas atmosphere, and Mara and Ben Foster give fine performances, but despite the admirable amount of care, the movie doesn’t entirely come to life.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for violence.

Showing: Guild 45th.

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