Sunsets flood David Lowery’s soulful robber-on-the-run story, lens-flaring the screen and painting everything in a rustic ochre patina. It’s beautiful but gets in the way, as though distracting writer/director Lowery from getting to the business at hand. The cinematography is by Bradford Young (Pariah), whose patient lens captures the dusky halo of tree-shaded Texas streets and grassy fields under a humbling sky. What it can’t do is transform Lowery’s stretched-out short of a piece into a full-fledged story.
At first, Lowery seems to be at the wheel of a movie that’s going places. He starts us out with two raw-boned kids in love who would have a bright future together if one of their party would quit with the law-breakin’. Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) twirl in the fields at twilight and moon over each other and whisper the kind of vapory nothings (“You gonna leave me? ‘Cause I’ll leave you first”) that small-town lovers do in movies with this serious a case of Terence Malick Syndrome. But after Bob does one caper too many they’re holed up in a shack blasting away at the cops. Bob’s sidekick is cut down, Ruth wings a cop, and Bob waves the white flag; he goes off to the slammer.
Cut to years later — you’ll have to guess how many; it’s that kind of movie — and Ruth is raising their young girl while Bob writes her letters perfumed in obsessive love. When word comes that he’s broken out, the scene is set for many differing interests to converge on her little white frame house. There’s the friendly but shady old neighbor of indeterminate friendship (Keith Carradine), some mustache-twirling gunsels itching to get their hands on Bob, and the cop (Ben Foster) who comes around to check on her; Ruth’s keeping the little fact that she was the one who shot him to herself.
Just about everyone here is adrift, much like the film itself. This isn’t immediately a problem, as Lowery cuts and weaves through his story with the born confidence of a filmmaker who doesn’t need to mull over every little point, because he’s got so much more to tell. He can get away with this for a time on pure technical merit (as editor, he helped Shane Carruth corral Upstream Color into making as much sense as it did), not even bothering to spell out the details of any of Bob’s crimes. A quick pan over some newspaper clippings that refer to a “crime spree” is about all we get. This elliptic avoidance would do fine for a different story, but it’s a problem here, where a good two-thirds of the film involves waiting to see what happens when and if Bob and Ruth are reunited. We see so little of them together and have such a paltry sense of the crimes they indulged in it’s difficult to have much invested in their outcomes.
While the yearning Foster and a flinty Carradine work overtime to track mud all over their characters, Mara and Affleck don’t do much better than the film itself at bringing viewers inside their lives. They strut and frown and play at being hard-nosed and hard-headed types with buckshot tempers but it reads like a pose. Lowery’s film is like that all over. Based on the cars, it looks to be nominally set in the 1970s, but the sepia visuals and hand-clapping, fiddling score slathers Depression-era dust over the whole thing. It strains so hard for authenticity the whole thing can’t help but feel fake.