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‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ unfolds at a slow and solemn pace

When pregnant Ruth (Rooney Mara) shoots wounds deputy her childhood sweetheart Bob (Casey Affleck) takes rap goes prisromantic Texas dram“Ain’t

When pregnant Ruth (Rooney Mara) shoots and wounds a deputy, her childhood sweetheart Bob (Casey Affleck) takes the rap and goes to prison in the romantic Texas drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”

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Ruth Guthrie Rooney Mara

Bob Muldoon Casey Affleck

Patrick Wheeler Ben Foster

Skerritt Keith Carradine

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by David Lowery. Running time: 105 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Aug. 30 at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: September 24, 2013 6:08AM

To get in the right state of mind for David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” take a few minutes to listen to some old-time murder ballads. Classic songs such as “Pretty Polly,” “Knoxville Girl” or “Delia’s Gone” will set the mood for a movie that is a folky murder ballad come to life.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (the title supposedly comes from an old folk song) is a slow-paced romantic drama designed to look as if it’s set in the 1930s in a Flannery O’Connor novel. But instead it’s the early 1970s in and around a town called Meridian located in Texas Hill Country. At its heart, it’s a Western lost in a place where time stands still and where the idea of a folk hero who steals to make a better life seems right at home.

Lowery, who is best known for his work as a film editor, proves he is a talent to watch with this transition to the director’s chair. With help from Bradford Young’s sublime cinematography, he creates a world filled with an ethereal light that illuminates the plight of childhood sweethearts. As the film opens, Ruth Guthrie (a restrained, tender Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck, fine as a sympathetic anti-hero) are caught up in what seems an ongoing crime spree. They’re both looking for a way out, a way to replace this life of want and need for a stable life together.

But shortly after Ruth informs Bob that she is pregnant, they are making a last stand in a shootout with the authorities after a robbery attempt. Bob’s partner-in-crime is killed and Ruth wounds a deputy, but Bob wipes the gun clean and takes the blame with one request: “Just wait for me.”

Ruth gives birth to their daughter Sylvie, and the years fall away laced with Bob’s voiceover narration of the dreamy letters he sends home, saying things like, “Every day I wake up thinking today’s the day I’m going to see you, and one of these days that will be so.” Skerritt (Keith Carradine), Bob’s surrogate father and a sort of local crime boss, provides a house and a job for Ruth. Around Sylvie’s fourth birthday, Ruth receives word from the deputy she shot, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster, fine as the uncertain good guy), that Bob has escaped.

At one point, Bob says that he and Ruth are “two parts of the same.” It’s as if they have spent this time apart in a sort of living trance, each knowing that the path will lead to the moment they are reunited. Bob never wavers from that goal. Ruth, however, begins to see in little increments how she can achieve a life outside of that doomed relationship thanks to the attention of Patrick, who seems to want to take Bob’s place. Despite this turn, she knows she will one day see Bob again. It is her destiny.

As the film unfolds, Lowery’s inspirations — most notably the moody vision of Terrence Malick — are obvious. This is no shoot-’em-up action film; some viewers may not have the patience for it. Lowery’s visual style is spare and beautiful, yet filled with a subtle tension. The folky, unearthly beat of Daniel Hart’s insistent soundtrack fills every moment, sometimes to great effect, sometimes getting in the way of the more plaintive turns.

Yet despite all this, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a tone poem that doesn’t quite live up to its luster. It is so shrewdly perfect and solemn that the strong emotions layered throughout Bob and Ruth and Patrick’s intertwined story become lost in the film’s one-note mood. It’s as if one of those aforementioned murder ballads came to life shrouded in a dreamlike state that resists the desperation and desire that is so central to a classic love story gone bad.

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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