The main theme of this year’s Sundance Film Festival — you know, other than sex — seems to be big actors looking to push the envelope and break free from the types of characters that mainstream audiences know them for. You had it with Michael Cera, in the hallucinatory Chilean flick “Crystal Fairy”; you had it with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the porn-heavy “Don Jon’s Addiction”; and you had it with Daniel Radcliffe, in the beatnik-era “Kill Your Darlings.” Now, Rooney Mara takes her turn in the drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
There is a lot to like about this movie and Mara’s performance in it (both of which debuted to positive reviews). But, quality aside, this film is notable because it’s the actress’s first project following her eyebrow-raising turn in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” The 2011 film, directed by David Fincher, had Rooney starring as Lisbeth Salander, an antisocial computer hacker who helps a disgraced journalist solve a murder mystery. Mara garnered attention for the role by transforming physically — in addition to getting her nipple pierced, she also had her eyebrows bleached and hair dyed black — and participating in several graphic scenes, two of which featured her character being brutally raped. Her performance was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
In “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” Mara has traded in her black clothing and Swedish accent for dusty button-downs and a Southern drawl. Her character, Ruth Guthrie, is one-half of an outlaw couple who go around robbing banks. When she wounds a police officer, her boyfriend (Bob Muldoon, played by Casey Affleck) takes the fall for her and ends up in jail. From there, he spends the rest of the film trying to get back to Ruth and their daughter, who he has never met. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of a family split apart, and Mara’s quietly powerful performance helps anchor the film. Each of her scenes, particularly those involving her daughter, are filled with emotion — this is a strong female character, doing her best to keep her family and life together while Bob is in prison.
Of course, Mara has already shown that she has the range to pull off a variety of characters. In “The Social Network,” another Fincher-directed film, she played Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jessie Eisenberg) girlfriend Erica Albright. Though her time on screen is brief, she performs screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue to perfection, which makes her jump from college student to black-clad computer genius commendable.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” — gorgeously shot and scored with a mix of haunting strings and handclaps — has Mara in a maternal role, as she looks to protect her child. It’s always pleasant to see an actress successfully transform, both physically and emotionally, from role to role. Mara will do it once again next month, in Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects,” in which she plays a young woman who begins to experiment with prescription pills.
Clearly, Mara likes to push the envelope. If she continues to play characters that challenge her as an actress, she’ll be around for quite some time.