Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ presence on screen feels like a short story – narrow and deep, rather than broad and shallow. It tells an easily framed saga about a young couple torn apart when their criminal activity sends one to prison and the other home to raise their child alone. The majority of the film exists within the space of Bob’s (Casey Affleck) journey to reunite with Ruth (Rooney Mara) and meet the daughter, now 5, who’d yet to be born when he was imprisoned.

Writer-director David Lowry’s modern homage to old Westerns begins in a grassy field that stretches between Ruth and Bob’s hovel to her parents house. A playful spat turns into Ruth’s coy reveal that she’s with child. Bob lets it sink in, smiles and twirls Ruth around for an embrace that’s backlit by a setting sun. Next time we seem them they’re cuddling in Bob’s car, and Bob, with his head in Ruth’s lap, talks to the baby. He spins a quixotic tale of the life that stretches out before them. Then Bob walks off into the night lit only by the rare streetlamp, on what can only be a heist. Days later, they’re at an abandoned house with their friend and partner, Freddie, in a standoff with police, where their fates are all but sealed.

Both Affleck and Mara are brilliantly able to provide a natural roughness to the characters they take on. When they slip into the personas of Bob and Ruth, who are more defined by not-having than anything else, there’s a coarseness even in their happiest moments. And, incredibly, they also manage to exude a certain amount of peacefulness in the midst of tragedy. Ben Foster, dubbed as the third point in the film’s love triangle, sympathetically plays the officer of the law in love with the wife of an outlaw – who isn’t so innocent herself. As crooked local business owner Skerrit, Keith Carradine successfully oscillates between the caring and the malevolent.

Despite the bleakness of Bob’s journey and the emotional toil that appears to consume Ruth’s life, the film is awash in a soft, romantic palate. Southern fields of tall grass in the moments before sunset, Ruth and her daughter walking hand-in-hand home from church on a road of silvery gravel between rows of lush green leaves, Bob combing back his oil-slicked hair in a dimly lit attic apartment. Even the scenes of bloodshed have an ethereal quality to them. In addition to the affects of Bradford Young’s cinematography, there’s Lowry’s patient directing that lets the camera linger in an almost exasperating number of the film’s moments – the mundane to the more gruesome. He shoots cars as they come towards the camera, and people as they walk away. Nothing is hurried, which serves to make the tortured love story more fluent, in that their seemingly indefatigable patience as lovers is forcibly echoed by us as viewers.

The short story told in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – for all its simplicity – is abundantly rich in its substance. Emotions are at the forefront, even in sections where gore might threaten to steal the scene. It’s about the people and their relationships. It’s about love and all its misdirection. And it’s set in a South that, despite its sparseness, possesses something of the strangely idyllic. It’s not a film that will shock with plot twists, or force you to access a deeper unconsciousness in order to understand it. It’s an earnest story in an earnest movie and it’s good. Really good.