The labyrinthine nature of memory, trauma, and guilt is made concrete in Benedict Andrews’s Una, a film that intermittently sends its characters wandering around what looks like an actual maze. In the title role, Rooney Mara puts her perpetually haunted gaze to good use as a melancholy woman whiling away her days at home taking care of her aging mom and her nights in clubs having anonymous sex. Through snippets of flashbacks, we sense the source of her isolation and pain: When she was thirteen, she was seduced and molested by her father’s friend and neighbor Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), who was subsequently sent to prison for the crime. A precocious and confident girl, the young Una thought she was in love; the contrast with the troubled, nervous grown woman we see in the film’s present makes it clear that something was irreparably shattered in her soul.
Much of the film involves Una confronting Ray, now married and working at a warehouse. What exactly does she want from him? Does she even know? Maybe she simply needs him to understand that she’s still there, out in the world, hurting. Ray, now calling himself Pete, is terrified at the sight of this woman. He feels he’s done his time and that he’s suffered enough for his actions. “This is my life. I had to fight for this!” he exclaims. “I lost everything!” “You got out after four years,” Una responds. “I’ve been living this for fifteen years.” As they argue, we learn more about what happened back in the day, when they had planned to run off together.
To complicate matters further, it’s Layoff Day at work: Ray’s company is merging with another, bigger one, and as a manager he’s been asked to talk to his fellow employees and deliver some meaningless corporate platitudes about moving forward into the future, even though he knows some of these people will soon be fired. To his credit, Ray upends the polite savagery of this particular professional gathering, which leads to some workplace chaos. And so, even as Una and Ray have their contentious back-and-forth, they have to shuffle and hide around the building, as his co-workers and managers search for him. Una, who as a child delighted in sneaking around with this older man, now sneaks around with him at the warehouse.
Stylistically, Una builds around contrast and juxtaposition — perhaps to echo the fact that the story centers on a verbal confrontation between two very different people. Andrews intercuts Una and Ray’s conversation with shots of them and others roaming the floor, the camera gliding, The Shining–like, among the high red shelves and narrow passageways. These moments eventually gain a kind of symbolic momentum, but it’s also hard at times not to feel like the filmmakers are trying to open up a not particularly cinematic story. (Una is based on the play Blackbird by David Harrower, which I have not read.)
There’s nothing wrong with stylization and opening things up (usually, these are good things), and Andrews has impressive command of his frame. But here, the extra-cinematic adornments seem somewhat unnecessary, as Una’s chief power lies in its two striking lead performances. For all her character’s brokenness, Mara keeps Una from becoming a wan figure of inchoate pity; even though Ray robbed her of her childhood, it’s imperative that we see glimmers of the person she once was slowly peeking through. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, has an arguably harder job: to humanize the monster, to convincingly convey his deluded conviction, common among child molesters, that brash young Una, supposedly wise beyond her years, was at least partly responsible for what happened. Together, these two put us in a dark, troubling, uncertain place — one that a lot of viewers will have a really tough time going to. (There were reportedly some walkouts at the premiere in Telluride last year.)
Una isn’t ultimately a strong enough film to do justice to its incredibly disturbing subject matter. And perhaps there was no way, after so thoroughly unsettling us, for the movie to resolve itself in any satisfying or convincing way. The odd direction it takes at the end speaks to the impossibility of closure, but it also feels oddly contrived. Una ends on a question mark, but I’m still not sure what the question is. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Directed by Benedict Andrews
Opens October 6, Landmark Sunshine