Written & Directed by David Lowery
Expectations and influences are funny things. When I first saw heard of the forthcoming film from filmmaker David Lowery, it was immediately placed on my watchlist for a few different reasons. The first was the fine actors attached to the project. I am quite fond of both Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, the latter of which had a phenomenal coming out party in 2007 with wonderful performances in both The Assassination of Jesse James and Gone Baby Gone. The second reason was the trailer, which gave off a distinct Terrence Malick vibe, Malick being my favorite director. This suggestion of influence was enough to get me excited. And I certainly feel the film was influenced by Malick’s work. But what left me with the funny feeling was how Lowery, also a disciple of Shane Carruth (Upstream Color, Primer), delivered his film, and the style he seemed to aspire to.
Bob (Affleck) and Ruth (Mara) are two young lovebirds in Texas, whose love always seems slightly strained, but forever intact. They live a less than glamorous life, barely scrapping by on their love. So when they get into a bit of trouble, and are cornered by the police, Bob takes the fall for Ruth after she shoots a police officer. Sentenced to years in prison, and Ruth pregnant with their daughter, Bob continually attempts to break out of prison, until on the sixth attempt he succeeds, and heads to reunite with his one true lover, Ruth, and their young daughter, Sylvie. But the authorities, including the cop who was shot (Ben Foster), who also now wishes to look after Ruth and Sylvie, are on his trail.
Lowery seems to recall much from Malick, and perhaps I am putting blinders on and missing the bigger picture, but I couldn’t help but notice how the narrative seemed to be a cross between Badlands and Days of Heaven. This is inherently not the worst of things, as those are both phenomenal films, but the style to which Lowery aspires to seems to be lacking somewhat in his delivery. The cinematography is great at times, some truly beautiful shots, but it can also be poor; shots in near blackout conditions. The lighting was so lacking at times it was an annoyance. This inconsistency is seen also in the mood of the film. There are some truly great moments captured, but the tonal shifts in the editing left me cold, and jarred from my focus.
The inconsistencies seen in Lowery’s direction are mirrored in his writing as well. All of the characters are too thinly scripted, leaving me reaching to find any connection or relation to them. I felt unsympathetic to their struggles. This on top of the snails pace of the story, the extremely minimalist approach, left me more bored than thrilled. Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. Lowery cuts most of the dull bits out, but I couldn’t help but feel he left some in as well. As a result, none of the performances wow, Affleck especially seems out of his league with the material.
At the same time, there is a moment nearer the end of the film where Bob is with a stranger in a car that seems such the perfect moment. It brings about the possible themes of false hope in the concept of true love, and of perceived greatness. This moment is my favorite in the film, but because we never seem to get enough from the characters to that point, the moment also does not seem earned. Perhaps Affleck was supposed to feel out of his element, but overall I didn’t find much to enjoy about the film. Unlike his buddy Carruth, whose Upstream Color handled the minimalist approach with great care, tone and fully carried out its idea to the conclusion, Lowery presents us with the potential for a good film, but stumbles in the execution, leaving me with a half-baked idea. I will say this, the films score was great all the way throughout, even if Lowery decided to use its crescendos to falsely raise the stakes of his otherwise fairly vapid film.
** – Poor