This is a flawed, but thoughtful and intelligent movie set in the 70’s but in what really feels like a timeless world hovering mid-point between ballad and blues. It’s a moody tale about a small-time bank-robber Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) who, after four years in prison, breaks out to journey back to the woman he loves, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and his young daughter. It’s a journey that seeks to pretend away a dangerous past and the reality of a tragic future. Muldoon, so well imagined by Casey Affleck with his boyish, innocent good looks, is like some dumb animal acting on pure instinct, driven on by a doomed love and a belief that life can be as he imagines it to be.
First time director/writer David Lowery (who’s done his time in the industry as an editor and cinematographer, as well as director of numerous shorts and TV shows) is, I think, one to watch. He brings scrupulous care in his creation of a kind of brooding moodiness, where the half-lit, empty landscapes of blowing reeds and grasses, the dun-coloured derelict houses and one-bulb interiors lend an atmosphere of incompleteness, of unfulfilled lives.
And he narrates a story best understood not from what he tells us, but from what he omits. We are introduced to Muldoon and Ruth as they’re about to rob a bank. This presumably doesn’t go as planned as we next meet them under siege by the police. It is in this siege that she shoots, more through sheer fluke than any suggestion of marksmanship, one of the policemen, Patrick (Ben Foster), who later falls in love with her. Muldoon insists on taking the rap for the shooting and is sent down for twenty-five years. He escapes four years later. Lowery makes no effort to dwell on this or offer any real explanation (“I just walked out”, Muldoon tells one of his friends). As he makes his way back to Ruth, we discover that he’s being trailed by a trio of bounty hunters, intent on revenge for something – we’re not sure what – he did either to one of them or their employer. It’s left vague. They’re there more as symbolic choric figures of how a bad past will literally be the death of him.
Directory Lowery is more interested in pointing our attention to his protagonist not as criminal and villain (which he is) but as a manifestation of doomed love. Muldoon’s desire to return to his woman, with whom he has had almost no contact in the four years he’s spent in prison (she claims to have lacked the words needed to write of her love to him), is essentially a Quixotic one. But what it illuminates is the heroic, life-affirming, boundless humanity in the man. For, as this ballad of a movie suggests, love is both ennobling and transcendent (transcending the nasty details of the life he’s lived, and which the director has kept deliberately in the shadows), as well as ultimately selfish and willfully blind.
Muldoon’s act of selflessness (taking the rap for his lover’s shooting) that sets the tale in motion, is balanced by the selfishness of his desire to run away with his family, as if the implacable relentlessness of the law were a mere fiction. Love just simply isn’t enough to keep the untold story from intruding into reality.
Love, the story shows, is a force for both protection, as well as destruction. Ruth is the narrative’s dramatic center-point. She is the one they – her lovers past and future and her ‘paternal protector’ – all gravitate toward, intent upon her protection. And she is a slightly distant, distracted presence – loyal to her man, but lonely and in need of the care and attentiveness offered her by her would-be protector, officer Patrick (the same policeman she shot) and the father figure, Skerritt (a laconic Keith Carradine). It is directed toward her that we see love’s three faces – Skerrits’ paternal love of parent to child, Patrick’s less than romantic love that seeks to offer the reality of a solid shoulder and a home and Muldoon’s romantic, passionate love that, built only on dreams, can inevitably lead nowhere.
The movie has echoes of “The Place Beyond the Pines” in its exploration of the reality that love itself, no matter its powers of redemption, is ultimately not enough. It’s not enough to simply assume that love is a substitute for responsibility. The fact of fatherhood is not a pass to happiness or fulfillment.
It’s nice to see a well-crafted, thoughtful movie for a change, after this summer of super-hero discontent. And it’s exciting to see such confident maturity in a first time director. But Lowery, clearly influenced by the greats – Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” hovers around many of the shots and its sense of rhythm – still needs to make his filmmaking feel less self-conscious. On many occasions, the dialogue and the set-pieces felt stilted and forced. This meant that even as he achieved at times a great deal of verisimilitude (people really looked as thought hey were shot), his characters often spoke like ideas in need of personality… as though the writing hadn’t quite fleshed them out.
Which should take nothing from the quality of the acting. In particular, Rooney Mara’s chameleon-like face – at times stunningly beautiful, at times flat and ‘ordinary’ – brings an extraordinary presence to the screen. Her Ruth is low-keyed and understated; and she has taken what is really quite a small part, and made it very much into a quiet gem.