NEW YORK "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is the latest in a list of movies celebrating the American outlaw mythology, but the indie film set in rural Texas in the 1970s focuses more on mood and feelings than blazing shoot-outs and daring prison escapes.
For writer-director David Lowery, the impetus for the outlaw romance, which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, was a desire to be a part of the tradition of classic American storytelling, and to create a film that felt like an old folk song.
"More than anything else I just wanted to make a movie that felt a certain way. I am always trying to figure out ways to capture intangible, abstract things like that and turn them into movies," the 32-year-old director said in an interview.
With its beautifully filmed landscapes, rustic sets and melodic, hand-clapping original score, the film starring Academy Award nominees Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as doomed lovers has a graceful ease and a nostalgic, reminiscent of Terrence Malick's 1973 crime drama "Badlands."
It is also a nod to Robert Altman's 1971 Western "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," right down to the inclusion of actor Keith Carradine, who appears in both films.
At the Sundance Film Festival, where "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" debuted earlier this year, critics praised its singular quality and panache, as well as its director.
"Lowery is hardly the first filmmaker to crib Malick's poetic aesthetic, but his clear confidence in aspiring to the same sort of enrapturing experience is undeniably impressive," said the film magazine Screen International.
Britain's Guardian newspaper chimed in saying, "His is truly a fresh voice, exhilarating to hear," while New York's Village Voice newspaper described Lowery, an adopted Texan and the eldest of nine children, as "a filmmaker to watch."
"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" stars Affleck, 38, as Bob Muldoon, a man who takes the blame when his pregnant wife wounds a local sheriff during a showdown with police. On the run after escaping from prison, he is determined to reunite with his wife and the four-year-old daughter he has never met.
It is familiar territory for Affleck, who received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
Mara, the 28-year-old actress best known for her starring role in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" in 2011, plays his wife and struggling single mother. Ben Foster, who appeared in 2012's "Contraband," is the wounded sheriff who falls in love with her.
The film became more of a love story when Lowery witnessed the chemistry between his stars during filming and realized that it was the shape the film needed to take.
Its unusual title, which predated the movie, was born when he misheard the lyrics of an old country song that a friend had played for him.
"I always liked it and thought it would be a good movie title," he said. "When I started writing this movie, because I wanted it to feel like an old folk song, I wanted the title to evoke that, rather than have a title that speaks to the plot or the characters."
Lowery said he believes in the inherent goodness of people and hopes audiences will have an emotional connection with the characters, who may have been bad in the past, but who are trying to do the right thing.
"More than that I hope people watch it and feel as if they have heard a new take on an old story and taken a trip down memory lane but in a way they never have before."
(Editing by Eric Kelsey and Paul Simao)