More than once, a film or a filmmaker has been compared to Terrence Malick, but nothing in my experience has ever been so unmistakably and overtly Malick-influenced as Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which couldn't telegraph its indebtedness to Badlands more explicitly if it named its protagonists Sissy and Martin. The question that then instantly presents itself is, Do we know that this is a problem? It's not like Terrence Malick knock-offs are some heavily overrepresented genre. And anyway, Malick's own Terrence Malick movie this year, To the Wonder was kind of unfortunate, so a really top-notch pastiche of that filmmaker's aesthetic was pretty well due.

Certainly, writer-director David Lowery's romantic crime drama is nothing if not an excellent pastiche, with cinematographer Bradford Young doing some absolutely outstanding work in crafting ridiculously beautiful images of rural Texas, but the kind of ridiculously beautiful images that are all the more impressive for how cleverly they reflect psychology and not splay sunsets and haze every five minutes. It's not even just the exteriors that are gorgeous, either: there are plenty of diffuse interior shots that are just as lovely as any of the more showy landscapes, or even lovelier, and generally much more committed to exploring character in the bargain. It contains what might even be my very favorite movie shot of 2013: Casey Affleck, standing in a dark empty house against a blown-out window, caught in a small pool of light surrounded by deep greys and blacks that symbolically represent his past sins.

The flipside is that Ain't Them Bodies Saints is very much the kind of film that encourages one to lead off by talking about the cinematography. Which is no problem at all for me, but the fact remains that the actual narrative and character material in the film is a little bit... I really don't know what word I want to go with, but "wheezy" certainly fits the bill. Also a little bit arbitrary, in patches, which has more to do with how slowly and casually the plot opens up, so that any time Lowery has to do something unlikely to make sure it ends up where he wants it, it feels unusually writerly and forced.

Unlike most films of the "young criminal lovers" genre, Ain't Them Bodies Saints opens with its shootout, rather than closing with it: Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), who shares his name with the Jurassic Park game warden, and this itched at me like a hard-to-reach tag all through the movie, has finally had the law catch up with him after a successfully career robbing banks. He's holed up with his fiercely loyal, pregnant wife, Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), who is helping to fend off the cops, and ends up seriously wounding one. Not anxious to end in the barrage of gunfire that would greet them as cop killers, Bob and Ruth immediately give up their resistance, and to protect his unborn child and his beloved, Bob insists that he had dragged her to his hideaway against her will, and it was he who fired that tragic bullet. Thus does Bob end up in jail, probably for the rest of his life, as Ruth and her newborn daughter Sylvie end up relying on the kindness of sympathetic neighbor, particularly in the form of a certain Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who arranges a house for her. Four years skate by in a poetically blurry montage, and Bob finally finds his opportunity to escape, but the intense manhunt that follows makes it impossible for him to make contact with his family, the only reason he broke out in the first place. Even worse for his romantic fortunes, his escape pushes Ruth into contact with policeman Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster), who was present at the shootout that put Bob in prison, and has been in love with her ever since.

The movie isn't all that concerned with that story, which is good, because the story's not very compelling. Mostly, it looks at Bob and Ruth and uses them to explore notions of how we live with past choices and the fear of past mistakes finally catching up with us: for Bob, an asshole in most things who was sent to prison for the one crime he didn't commit, this takes on a more fatalistic cant than it does for his wife.But she's haunted in her own ways, and this would all be pretty gorgeously moody, delicately philosophical stuff, if only the performances were a little bit better. Sadly, neither Affleck (whom I almost always love) nor Mara (who I never "love" but sometimes find more interesting than irritating) does much of anything with their characters, perhaps encouraged to play them as emotional glaciers and archetypes more than tragically separated lovers. It falls to Foster to provide the film with virtually all of its emotional truth, and he does this splendidly, in one of the best unheralded performances of the year: all awkward, uncomfortable stances in which he stands around hoping Ruth will talk to him, straddling the line between "lovelorn romantic" and "creepy stalker" perfectly.

Really, though, Affleck and Mara's listlessness doesn't actually operate outside of the movie's own preferred space: this is, again in keeping with Malick, a very abstract, performative piece, more of a pantomime of romantic tragedy than an actual tragedy. And it is a gloriously well-made version of this, with its exquisite cinematography and a meandering, tuneless score by Daniel Hart that uses orchestrations and melodies from American folk music to create something rather more like a sonic wall than a collection of musical cues. It is a film of modulated emotional states, both those felt by its characters (who refuse to acknowledge what they feel as a survival instinct), and those felt by its audience (who are therefore denied active, relatable protagonists with easily digested emotional journeys). If one were gruesomely pretentious, one might go ahead and say that Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a film that examines how we feel emotions in stressful situations by rendering those emotions in such clinical, artificial ways. And yet it takes place in such a vividly realised place, both visually and in its wonderfully detailed soundscape (the sounds of a lazy summer are perfectly expressed, right down to the clicks of a lone cicada). Perhaps we might say that emotion is added back into the film because of how it is made, not because of what story it tells. All of which should be enough to make it clear that this is an unconventional and in some ways frustrating movie, but one that is particularly beautiful and transporting precisely because of those frustrations.