Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed
US theatrical: 6 Oct 2017
Rooney Mara is not the most expressive actor around. Her most natural state appears to be floating in lanky ambivalence while other performers try to suss her out. But she often arrives in a scene carrying more potential for danger than most of her more pallid peers can manage. That watchfulness isn’t always passivity, it’s also a screen for that switchblade she’s about to pull. Riding the tension between those states is a skill that she uses all through Una, a stagey two-hander drama in which she plays a young woman who has hunted down the older man who she had a relationship with 15 years ago, when she was just 13. She needs answers, but still can’t formulate the question.
When Mara’s Una appears at the workplace of Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), it’s clear she’s nursing deep wounds. Flashbacks to her younger self (played with similar watchfulness by Ruby Stokes), scored in part by PJ Harvey’s raspy and chilling little-girl murder ballad “Down by the Water”, show that she is still living in the same house as a grown-up. We also see that at the time she believed herself deeply in love with Ray, the next-door neighbor on their quiet suburban street. Then there was a trial, a separation and, judging by the curdled looks she gets, plenty of talk that wasn’t generous to her. By the time the adult Una comes face to face with Ray, she has 15 years of guilt and rage burning behind that placid expression.
Ray is first panicked at the appearance of this quiet, dark specter of his past. Director Benedict Andrews, a veteran of the international stage making a steely cinematic debut ably assisted by Jed Kurzel’s ominous score and Thimios Bakatakis’s spooky cinematography, makes sure to exacerbate Ray’s discomfort. The scene of their confrontation is Ray’s workplace: a warehouse with long, echoing, high-ceilinged spaces featuring few hiding places and plenty of curious co-workers looking over to see what that intense-looking young lady wants with him. Even when Ray bundles the two of them into a room with a door, there are windows everywhere and sound-leaking walls. It’s a recurring theme through this movie: everyone is watching, and everyone knows. There’s nowhere for him to hide as she glares stonily and throws out one lacerating question (“How many thirteen-year-old girls have you had sex with?”) after another.
But what gives the screenplay—adapted by David Harrower from his play, Blackbird—its discomforting edge is that once Una has Ray cornered, she doesn’t precisely know what to do with him. This is no Hard Candy-style vengeance tale. Una cycles between fury, sorrow, confusion, flirting, and a need for answers. As Ray parries her queries, he starts defending his actions. I’ve paid my price, he says, four years in prison for sexually abusing a minor, having to change his name and entire life. Nonsense, she spits back, “I had to keep my name.”
But there’s an uncertainty to her response that begins turning the showdown to his favor. Still working through her unresolved trauma, she can’t decide whether to destroy his new married middle-class manger’s life or reestablish a relationship with him. A decade and a half later, he remains the adult who can walk away from all this while she is still the wounded girl spiraling around an entrapping memory. Her bent for self-sabotage, alluded to in the opening scenes, continues when Ray tries to escape both her and his irritated boss. She latches on to Ray’s co-worker Scott (Riz Ahmed), a chatty bloke with no clue what he’s getting into.
As the squirrelly, canny Ray, Mendelsohn holds his cards close to the vest. Already one of the greatest actors working today, his thoughtfully cool demeanor can be easily deployed for sinister effect: that’s why he’s so often cast as the villain. But here, his deft characterization manages to be layered and humane without it making it seem as though the movie were trying to garner undue sympathy for such a man. His responses to her escalating disintegrations are the work of a skilled manipulator figuring out what he needs to do to get out of this confrontation with the least amount of collateral damage. What gives Una its unnerving tension is not just the skill of these two performers locked together in their unsettling combat, but the realization that no matter what she ends up doing to him, it won’t fix what has already nearly destroyed her.