Terrence Malick pastiches are a hushed voiceover a dozen, but it’s rare to find a filmmaker who engages the cult auteur at his core, and especially one who favors the vintage Malick of Badlands over the more ethereal artist who gave us To the Wonder. David Lowery’s outlaw-blues parable shares with the former a lyricism that’s more rooted in character and place than philosophy or spirituality. The place is small-town Texas; the time, while unspecified, looks like the 1970s, although many of the characters carry over their ways from earlier decades (and, in some cases, centuries). A bank robber (Casey Affleck) breaks out of prison to see the woman (Rooney Mara) he left behind and the child he’s never met. He’s pursued by a local lawman (Ben Foster) who has his own tender feelings for the lady. The story itself is as old as time, which may be why Lowery seems in no rush to tell it. He lets fate and the weight of the drama push the film toward its finite number of outcomes, savoring the scenery along the way. (Lowery has copious editing credits, including Upstream Color, so he knows a few things about pace.)
Buoyed by the rustic drone of Daniel Hart’s score—itself highly redolent of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s recent work—Saints drifts along like a raft on a river until its final movement, more violent and visceral than anything in Malick’s canon. It’s an unfailingly beautiful movie that finally stakes out a territory of its own, with quietly intense performances and a sure hand on the tiller (although the trio of bounty hunters who set out after Affleck feel like invaders from another movie, one more defined by genre than mood). If it’s not thrillingly new, it’s old in the best way—worn, comfortable and embodying virtues too often lost.
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