The presence of Rooney Mara is always something of an enigma; her romantically inert role as Therese, for instance, where the only thing I can seem to remember is her as the object of Cate Blanchett’s devouring eyes as Blanchett’s Carol sees her from across the storefront. She was also the Girl with the Something or Other, but I missed that whole thing. And, of course, she was the best part of The Social Network, yelling at Jesse Eisenberg like we all wanted to during The Squid and the Whale. I might even, in moments of confusion, have thought, like Tim Heidecker’s On Cinema at the Cinema guy: “wait, shouldn’t it be Mara Rooney.”
But through happenstance (reactivating ye olde Netflix queue), two recent Mara DVDs came to the house, and it became clearer that her passivity and her rather nondescript features are what draws directors to her. She does do character, kinda, but she is best as object rather than subject. As the two films under review, A Ghost Story and Song to Song, demonstrate, filmmakers can go a long (and short) way to maximize her strengths.
The better of these two films, by a far margin, is David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Featuring a nearly speechless Mara, the film follows the experiences of a ghost, Mara’s lost love who dies in a car accident. Mara is indispensable in this role, and like the ghost, we are forced to mostly watch and think about how beautiful it must have been to love her. Mara kind of putters around during this time, trying to get life back together, but in one sequence, in which she displays perhaps the most extraordinary depiction of sublimated grief in screen history, we (and the ghost) are forced to watch an almost unwatchable scene, a stomach churner involving just a fork and a comfort pie brought by a friend.
Though Mara is impressive, the strength of the film (other than the profound sincerity of the screenplay) is how Lowery conveys the passing of time. Unlike Song to Song (see below), Lowery relies on a number of subtle camera movements and misdirection to trace a story which involves very little more than one person watching another person (or, later, a few people, and then no people, and then more people). It is hard to imagine the story being told in any other medium other than film, and the slight pans and occasional special effects are the story itself. The leaps and bounds taken across time (but, rarely, space) reinvigorate the film at each point when it might seem impossible to have the characters do or say anything else. With the notable exception of one (slightly off-key) break for a monologue, the film captures what seems to be a new pace and genre, a narrative technique that causes deep tension, anxiety and, finally, cheer-tear level of catharsis. Even when Mara’s character seems long gone, the time and attention dedicated to her leaves a clear vision of her in our eyes.
Not quite so for Song to Song, where Mara plays one half of a troubled couple who find themselves trapped in a high-art version of spin the bottle (or, in Terrence Malick’s case, spin the actor). The setup is something of a love triangle, or pentangle, or something – Mara has sex with at least two other people; he partner, Ryan Gosling, also has sex with at least two other people, and Gosling’s good buddy Michael Fassbender (one of the other guys that Mara sleeps with) has sex with another main character and about a dozen or so other people (the last makes Fassbender’s Shame character look like Henry James). Oh, and they all hang out with Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a seriously demented and worrisome Val Kilmer.
This should all be good fun, but it seems that only Fassbender gets into the freedom of the script, presumably ad-libbing a number of wonderful physical stunts, like tackling Flea, getting bombed on tequila, or making a creepy imitation of a monkey (sound and gesture). But as the libertine of the group, he’s, well, liberated, while the brooding Mara and Gosling have to flounder around in the film until they can grope themselves back together to domestic bliss. It’s a story that doesn’t need Malick’s and Emmanuel Lubezki’s considerable gifts, and all the swirling and pop-Classical music and voice-overs just distract from what could be an interesting Boy Meets Girl story (for how well this wild ride could work in fiction, see Murakami’s 1Q84).
In a conclusion that feels both true (if you’re a sentimentalist) as well as completely unearned and preposterous, their unification occurs after Mara starts listening to her small-town father and Gosling gives up a life as a songwriter for the, uh, blacker, pastures of being an oil-rigger. Whether risking one’s life in service to fossil fuel interests is indeed the splendid “simple life” Malick has always argued for, the ending seems a poor juxtaposition to the film’s many scenes that regularly sidestep the plot to focus on celebrity cameos of figures who decidedly do not adopt the simple life. Smith is by far the best of them, in both music and acting, but what could be further from the Hallmark Card life of (presumably) soon-to-be homemaker Mara and gruff blue-collar Gosling than the life of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe? Just Kids this ain’t.
Like most actors, Mara’s many talents and gifts are subject to the tastes and styles of directors and their scripts. For Lowery, the stillness of his camera and the emotional inertness of her character (to say nothing of the stillness of the ghost) allow her to display a profound concentration. You just know there is a lot churning as she moves from room to room. In contrast, Malick sets up Mara to be one of his pin wheeling objets d’art, supposedly into “rough sex” and troubled, but really displaying neither of these characteristics (her entire psychology seems to be demonstrated through a rotating set of wigs). Malick also allows Mara voiceover work, which is not a good idea; even Natalie Portman’s Texas lilt shines over her’s. Up next for Mara looks to be Mary Magdalene, a film about a historical figure about which almost nothing is known and upon which everything is projected. Should be good.