Whether this light is the hope of the day or the dusk of night Lowery does not reveal.
Most every scene in the movie is in the “magic hours” of the day, either the wee hours of the morning, the late hours of the day, or in the night with barely enough light to see. But it is not only the way Lowery plays with light that makes this western unique, it is the information Lowery withholds.
The plot is simple, an outlaw in Texas in the 70’s trying to get back to his beloved family. But it is far from the typical movie. There is little dialogue and Lowery feels no pressure to let viewers know the background on any of the characters. Rather the focus is on the present and the possible future.
The first scene begins with Bob (Casey Affleck) chasing Ruth (Rooney Mara) through an open field trying to resolve an argument, while she is threatening to leave. She is truly upset, but the viewer is not exactly sure why.
Lowery then has them flirting in an old truck and Bob speaking to their unborn daughter about their future. This scene becomes very important for the entire movie, for Bob romanticizes the future imagining what could be, a repeated theme in the movie. Then Bob leaves with a gun to rob some sort of store with a partner. It then quickly moves to a shootout, but Lowery has no interest in the robbery, the chase, or even the shootout.
Bob ends up in prison and Ruth gives birth to their daughter. Escaping from prison, Bob then tries to reunite with his beloved family.
Lowery never tells viewers how or why Bob and Ruth got into the robbing business, who exactly Bob’s deceased partner is, and what exactly the relationship is between Bob, Ruth and the older man who probably raised Bob. A friend from long ago helps Bob after he escapes from prison, but not surprisingly, viewers get no background on him either except a line or two about their past. Patrick (Ben Foster) the cop who begins to pursue Ruth while Bob is in prison is given plenty of screen time, but rarely speaks.
The narrative gaps, the lack of information on each character cause viewers to conceptualize things for themselves. It makes them use their imagination and create a future and past for Bob and Ruth. Lowery repeatedly has Bob speaking about their future together which is never realized.
As Bob describes it a letter to Ruth, “I am so close to you I can almost reach out and touch your cheek” but their reunion is not the picture he painted. Bob is an emotive idealist, with a huge heart, but he does not think through things logically. This idealism and romanticism revealed most clearly when he tells his friend how he escaped prison. He makes up some elaborate story, and then his friend says, “I heard you jumped out of a work truck,” and Bob shrugs.
At the end of the movie Lowery has the scene is the truck recur again, something he never does with their past. Bob says to their future daughter.
Well let me tell you about something. I am gonna to tell you about the future. In the future I am a very old man. I am standing in the door. We are in a house, it’s our house, somewhere far away from here, where everything is green and the sun is setting. And the way I see it, we are waving to somebody. And maybe that somebody is you, come to see us after a long time. If it is you, we are very happy to see you.
The gaps in the background push the viewer forward to consider what “could” be. Bob is always describing what it will be like when he sees her again, what it will be like to meet his daughter, and how Ruth and him will die in each others arms.
The magic of the movie comes in the sounds and Rooney Mara’s superb acting. Daniel Hart puts together a masterful soundtrack that includes bluegrass, clapping, and strings. Additionally, Casey Affleck’s voice is perfect for reading his letters out loud. The raspiness of his chords go in and out, and coincides with the light moving on and off him. Lowery presents him as a character with dark and light, with sympathy and with a guilty shadow. Rooney Mara like most of the characters speaks little, but her eyes and body language tell what words cannot.
Because of the nature of the film, people have compared it to the Terrance Malick style. And although there are similarities, with a focus on the visual, it is something different. For Lowery does have a straightforward plot structure and also includes more dialogue.
There are flaws to the movie. Lowery spent too much time on Bob’s friend, and the assassins that are hired to kill Bob also seemed out of place. But in the end the movie is still a success and closes with one of the more powerful scenes I have watched in a movie for a long time.
That ray of light at the beginning of the movie is dark of night, for Bob’s dreams never come to be. For as he says at the end, “at the same time I feel like I am guilty, there is no telling, there is just no telling.”