It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to reunite with actors they have worked with previously, which is exactly what writer and director David Lowery has done in reconnecting Rooney Mara with Casey Affleck on-screen. Their past collaboration was a Western romance, and the latest piece is something not only very different from that, but unlike anything you’ll see all year. Indie drama A Ghost Story follows lovers credited only as C (Affleck) and M (Mara) and their suburban married life. After tragedy strikes and C is killed in a car accident, he returns home as a white-sheeted ghostly presence to watch over his wife as she struggles to cope with the enormity of her loss.
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Some directors can attract A-listers thanks to their previous collaborations, their industry reputation or by the way in which they make films. The acclaimed yet divisive Terrence Malick falls into this category and has pulled together Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman to make up possibly the most star-studded cast in recent memory. His latest feature is romantic drama Song to Song, which unfolds against the backdrop of the music scene in Austin, Texas. At the centre of it all is Faye (Mara), a rising musician who embarks on a relationship with fellow performer BV (Gosling) but who is also seeing his manipulative producer Cook (Fassbender); hence a complicated love triangle ensues.
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Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize back in 2008, and now writer and director Jim Sheridan has adapted the Irish story from page to screen. The plot centres around mental hospital patient Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave) who has spent fifty years in an institute after she was reported to have brutally murdered her new-born baby. With plans set in motion to demolish the home and for a flat redevelopment, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) is sent to assess her state of mind. A dark past is soon revealed through both the scribbles and sketches in her beloved Bible which give the film its name, and in flashback sequences were Rooney Mara takes the leading role as the young protagonist.
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Gone are the days of western stalwarts like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when the genre was at its busiest, bringing cowboy films to cinema screens thick and fast. In more recent times, tradition and stereotypes from that field have been replaced by more ambitious modernised takes that come few and far between but are usually worth the wait. Notable examples include Andrew Dominik’s epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Tarantino’s twisted homage Django Unchained, both directors applying their own style and attitude to the familiar environment of the western film.
In steps David Lowery with whose artistic vision has been strongly compared to that of Terrence Malick, with ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’, his Bonnie and Clyde-esque romantic crime drama starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Set in 1970s Texas, criminal lovers Bob Muldoon (Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Mara) are embroiled in a shootout with the authorities and when Ruth shoots local police officer Patrick (Ben Foster), Bob takes the blame, leaving her to raise their daughter alone while he is sentenced to life behind bars.
Although the plot focuses on a notorious outlaw on his quest to reunite with his soul mate, there is a lot less action that you would imagine. Key events such as Muldoon’s prison escape are spoken of but go unseen and instead Lowery aims his directional wand at glorious landscapes, revelling in the dusty beauty of candlelit rooms allowing the characters to develop at a brooding pace. Bob and Ruth’s bruised bond is continued through scribbled love letters accompanied by a drawling voiceover delivered convincingly by Affleck but as time wears on and news of Bob’s flee circulates, Ruth is faced with the choice of holding out for him as promised or settling down with Patrick who holds a torch for her, unbeknownst to the fact that it was she who pulled the trigger on him years before. The internal dilemma can be seen as the youthful wilds of western ideologies versus the realities of growing up and nurturing a child. Ruth is interestingly caught somewhere in the middle, raising questions of her flawed character and her relationship with Muldoon who is still living out his own misguided version of the American Dream.
Rooney Mara gives a very impressive performance as the conflicted Ruth Guthrie, continuing a fantastic run after the brilliant Side Effects earlier in the year. She manages to underplay a charismatic blend of vulnerability and unpredictability perfectly, and I would not be surprised to see her receiving a second string of nominations at the awards season. Affleck also is in fine form, fighting from under the shadow of his older brother, and carrying on his association with the modern day western after his memorable turn as the aforementioned Robert Ford. He and Mara establish an early connection effectively in the beautifully filmed opening scene and this chemistry resonates through to the closing frames holding the minimal narrative together.
The aesthetic impact outweighs the uncomplicated story which trickles through middle sections at a snail’s pace which is fine for the most part but lacking a little oomph to carry it through. In defence, this is Lowery’s biggest project to date and ultimately shows potential and perhaps if he was as inventive a screenwriter as he is a director then it would make for a sturdier, more balanced film. It is however exciting to see another interpretation of the genre which successfully dodges the deep cliché pitfalls and joins an exquisitely made collection of the neo-westerns, and though it may not be as impactful as others, it is a far cry from flogging a dead horse.
See the trailer: