After her more aggressive outlaw stance as Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara acts like she’s in training for her upcoming Terrence Malick film in David Lowery’s melancholy crime fable. If so, she secured a fine trainer.
Confident and careful, Lowery’s Sundance breakthrough busts the laws of Malick imitation: when a film is this assured, you hardly mind that it’s also derivative.
There are also echoes of Bonnie And Clyde and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us , but Malick’s Badlands and Days Of Heaven pop to mind most readily as ’70s outlaw lovers Ruth (Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) burn for each other under dreamy Texas skies.
Gunfights and prison breaks shape a plot that spans from a shoot-out with cops to Bob’s prison escape four years on, time in which Ruth has raised their daughter and blanked good cop Patrick (Ben Foster). But Lowery manages to give western, noir and crime clichés intelligent makeovers.
Seismic events are reported rather than staged. Little moments receive most emphasis, teasing the emotional stakes from under the surface. Lowery keeps things cool even as cops and bad men pursue the escaped Bob, but he knows what’s needed to hook us in.
Foster and Keith Carradine flesh out their fringe characters. Daniel Hart’s rustic score and DoP Bradford Young’s images transcend the ’70s trappings, turning a potentially static period piece into something timeless.
Holding the centre, Affleck brings welcome warmth to Bob while Mara pines in perfect profile, making magnetic work out of Ruth’s restrained yearning. That reserve might rile some: ATBS certainly burns slow. But as its emotional pieces move into place the climactic pay-off punches all the harder for Lowery’s steady-handed build.