Review: A Ghost Story

Distributor: A24
Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Composers: Daniel Hart
Genre: Drama, fantasy, romance
Rating: R
After completing the big-budgeted, live remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, David Lowery returns to the indie film circuit to craft a story that expresses his own artistic desires, free from the influence of Hollywood. What he inevitably creates is an artistic exploration that’s oddly inspired by an argument he had with his wife over whether they should sell their house. Pairing together Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara again (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), A Ghost Story premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and received wide critical acclaim, though members of the public were not so convinced. With its borderline comical use of bed linen, along with a notorious five-minute pie-eating sequence, are the critics’ claims of this movie being a hauntingly beautiful cinematic experience completely discordant with the general public?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Violent acts aren’t shown, only the consequences. The film shows a number of corpses as the results of either an accident or murder, sometimes bleeding, or in the various stages of decay. As the title suggests, this movie is about a ghost, and while a few scenes display supernatural events that are traditionally associated with haunted houses, A Ghost Story is not aiming to be a horror film, and approaches those tropes with an almost tongue-in-cheek manner. However, there are two false jump scares. Also, a character jumps off a tall building.
Language/Crude Humor: There is very little dialogue in A Ghost Story, so it’s surprising that it does manage to drop the f-bomb in its runtime.
Spiritual Content: Spoiler – There’s a ghost! It’s very cliché and cheeky in its treatment. There’s no strong theology or explanation of the movie’s version of the afterlife. What’s offered is the standard universal fare in regards to the plot’s supernatural elements, with bright and flickering lights, cutesy sheets, and levitating objects; concepts that we’ve witnessed in innumerable movies before, that need no introduction.
However there is one conversation that attempts to shed light on the situation, though it offers no solid answers. In this scene, an amateur, attention-seeking philosopher posits to a crowd his thoughts regarding the issues surrounding a person’s legacy in amongst the vastness of time. God is mentioned, though the discussion naturally shifts away from that direction, instead exploring the existentialist nihilistic route. It is neither for nor against Christianity, rather it’s merely an exploration of the concept.
Sexual Content: There are no sex scenes or nudity, though A Ghost Story does depict a close romance (it is never explicitly stated whether they are married or not). Therefore the couple kisses and snuggles in bed, and it is implied that they are nude under the covers.
Drug/Alcohol References: There is a party scene where alcohol is consumed socially.
Other Negative Content: A character does vomit. While the camera lingers a fair distance away, sympathetic upchuckers beware!
Positive Content: A Ghost Story is an exploration of the concepts surrounding the afterlife, and does so without encroaching upon or criticizing a particular religion. It does this by bringing in an element of choice; the ghost is presented with a brightly lit doorway soon after death. For whatever reason, he ignores it. Though its presence in the movie acknowledges the existence of other possibilities, it’s just that this story wishes to explore a particular path of reasoning, much like the thought experiments discussed within Ecclesiastes. Since A Ghost Story doesn’t make a strong commitment to any particular faith, it means it’s a film that’s open to interpretation, and Christians may find it to be a useful jumping point into a deeper conversation with someone who may have an alternate worldview.

Review

When grieving over the loss of a loved one, many people around the world take comfort in the idea that the deceased is still present, watching over those that remain. A Ghost Story wistfully approaches the topic and pushes the resulting logic to the nth degree, exploring a person’s significance when no physical evidence survives.
Casey Affleck spends the vast majority of the film’s runtime under a sheet with cut out holes for eyes. Yet, A Ghost Story is so much more than him merely playing the elephant in the room (or ghost in this case), and representing the embodiment of grief as his wife struggles to move on in the foreground. The couple’s relationship is developed, although it’s not an epic tale of love. With Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara credited as simply C and M respectively, they portray an everyman-type role. There is nothing inherently special about their relationship, rather them being in love is a mechanic for the story in order to explore certain themes. This could have easily have been a story about any couple, or any human, as what A Ghost Story tries to tackle is so much bigger than a romance.
While the relationship does ground the story, this film isn’t your typical narrative. Depending on how one divides the beats of the movie, A Ghost Story could be considered to have as many as five acts, with love and loss only being the first two parts. However, the remnants of that relationship drives the action right through to the film’s simple yet fitting conclusion, so there is some sort of semblance of an overarching plot. Divorcing itself from the standard three-act structure of storytelling (going as far to even make the audience ponder as to whether there’s even a beginning, middle, and end), A Ghost Story is frequently described as an experience, rather than narrative filled with actions and their consequences, much like The Tree of Life and some parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
With little dialogue, a shifting array of characters, and covering an indefinite passage of time, A Ghost Story therefore needs to rely on its cinematography and editing to carry the few narrative elements that it does possess. Thankfully David Lowery’s command of the camera is masterful. With expansive wide shots, Lowery’s lingering lens is practically a character in itself, as though the various rooms around the set have their own history to tell. This nostalgic approach to the surrounding space is further enhanced by the odd decision to film in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The camera takes are abnormally long in duration. The most infamous of which, if you haven’t heard already, is an approximately five-minute shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie, while Casey Affleck (we can only assume) looks on from under his sheet. Featuring relatively early on in the movie, this scene is either going to make or break the viewer’s experience. It’s the film’s litmus test that reveals just how invested you are in your willingness to travel along for the cinematic ride. Either the lengthy shot will create a mixture a emotions as the camera’s lingering presence allows the scene to breathe, or its unwavering eye will unsettle the viewer to the point where they willingly disengage, preferring to cover their awkwardness by sniggering and sneering at the scene’s apparent absurdity.
A Ghost Story’s unconventional approach makes it a highly divisive film. One the person sitting beside me at the cinema loved it, while another person hated the movie. It’s all too easy to take a step back, snap your suspension of disbelief and giggle inanely at the idea that there are long shots of someone standing with a sheet over their head, while others sit by and think this is art. There is a quirky absurdity to it all, and either you soak it up and go with the flow, or ponder why on earth you’re watching a dorky-looking ghost standing around and doing nothing.
For this reason, it’s hard to recommend watching A Ghost Story at the cinemas. This is a film that works best if seen in one session. Any interruptions from a family member who can’t find their matching sock, to the temptation to check your Facebook account in the hopes that someone liked your meme, will simply disrupt and detract from the experience. So A Ghost Story and its beautiful use of imagery does well on the big cinema screen. However, because it’s so easy to poke fun at the movie’s presentation, you might be stuck with entire groups of disruptive people, leaving you not only unable to invest fully into the happenings onscreen, but also infuriated that you’re paying top dollar for the privilege to experience what it must be like in another’s lounge room (oh, how we’ve all been there)! So pick your session times wisely!
In a distraction-free environment, A Ghost Story is a wonderful experimental, whimsical journey. The editing brilliantly pops through time, with moments of history gently washing over in waves. A master class in visual storytelling, it’s surprising how a subtle tilt of the head, the duration of a shot, or a change in color palette can completely shift the mood within the space. This is all in conjunction with Daniel Hart’s score. A Ghost Story features an eccentric mix of music ranging from classical, to ethereal tunes, to modern beats, each fitting perfectly with the tone of each scene. Some of the longest shots are completely devoid of music, allowing a subtle soundscape to give life to eerily still moments.
The costume design also deserves some praise. No, I’m not merely being facetious! I genuinely found myself admiring the quality of that sheet numerous times throughout the film! It’s a simple, humorous costume that’s not only symbolically important, but the hefty way it drapes over Affleck’s form further establishes the idea that it’s a barrier preventing any sort of meaningful interaction. The impassable texture of the material is oddly mesmerizing as it slides over the shifting landscapes. It’s so deliciously dissatisfying whenever a character moves past it, or reaches out, but never makes contact. Lastly, let us all take a moment to appreciate the fact that A Ghost Story has provided us with an excuse to wear the laziest, most cliché Halloween costume this year!
A Ghost Story will certainly be one of the more unusual films this year has to offer. Those who are also fluent in Spanish will have an even greater experience, as there are entire scenes spoken in the language. Subtitles are present in the film but are utilized elsewhere. Ultimately, you may love this movie. Or you may hate it. It’s really one that’s open to interpretation where the more you’re willing to invest, the greater the return. It’s worth a look for any cinephile, as these types of films don’t come along often enough.

Positives

+ Intriguing camera work. + Visually moving. + Great use of symbolism. + Delightfully quirky.

Negatives

- Divisive; either love it or hate it. - No subtitles offered for Spanish characters. - A bad audience at the cinema will kill the experience.

The Bottom Line

Unconventional but wonderfully constructed, A Ghost Story is either an engrossing exploration across time and space for some, or a ridiculously weird cinematic outing for others. One of the more divisive films of 2017.

 

8.6

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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