“A Ghost Story” is a haunting supernatural drama film directed by David Lowery (director of 2016’s “Pete’s Dragon”). The film stars two exceptional actors in Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”), with the latter wearing a bedsheet for the majority of the movie.
It’s very easy to explain the basic premise of “A Ghost Story” – a man, played by Casey Affleck, dies at the start of the film and we watch him live the lonely life of a ghost. It’s a simple idea but David Lowery gets the most out of it by capturing the implicit horror of such an isolated existence. The conditions of the man’s existence after death are never fully explained – we don’t see his face because he’s covered by a sheet, we don’t know if time moves at the same speed for him as it does for us, and we don’t know if by the end of the movie he even remembers who he is or why he’s still here – and that’s part of the film’s charm.
“A Ghost Story” doesn’t pretend to know any more about the afterlife than we do – it doesn’t present a viable possibility, it simply explores what life as a ghost would be like. The existence that this film portrays is a miserable one, and although Casey Affleck doesn’t have much opportunity to emote under his sheet you feel the man’s pain throughout. If anything the fact that the man is covered by the sheet actually adds emotion to the film, because it highlights his inability to interact meaningfully with the world around him and accentuates the hopelessness of his situation. Every time the man slumps down or is on his knees the sheet crumples with him and his movements are deliberate as it sways behind him when he moves. It’s astoundingly effective despite its simplicity and it gives the film more gravitas than it would’ve had if the man had existed in the same physical state as he did before he died.
This film is visually fantastic throughout and this together with the score makes the whole experience quite emotional. The start of the movie was exceedingly smart because the way that the relationship between the man and the woman was depicted was much more honest than the norm. Throughout the film scenes are allowed to drag on – we don’t cut away when the point of a scene is revealed; instead we act as voyeurs, invading the private moments of people who are struggling to exist. The two most powerful scenes of the movie for me would be completely disregarded in a less intelligent film, but in this one they’re allowed to linger on screen and in the audience’s memory.
The first of these scenes occurs before the man loses his life and it goes a long way to creating a degree of investment in the relationship that the film revolves around. The woman (Rooney Mara) and the man (Casey Affleck) wake in the middle of the night after they hear something bang on their piano. They get up but there’s nothing there – no one has broken in and nothing seems to have fallen to cause the noise. We as the audience suspect that the noise was made by a ghost because we know what the film is called, but the couple isn’t in the know so they go back to bed and embrace. They’re tired and shaken so they take comfort in one another, and we’re afforded the chance to watch them kiss for what seems like minutes. When watching this scene you really do feel invasive, but once it’s done you know all that you need to know about the couple to be invested.
The second scene comes shortly after the man’s death and focuses on the woman as she tries to cope with her grief. It’s not an eventful scene but it’s incredibly poignant – the woman sits on the floor of her kitchen eating a pie which a friend has made for her, clearly loathing every bite. She manages to eat most of it as she sniffles and sighs, before putting it down and running to the toilet to be sick. I think the effective thing about this scene is not merely that it occupies the screen for a very long time but also that it accurately depicts what it’s like to go on living when you lose someone you love. The woman doesn’t want to eat but at the same time she doesn’t know what else to do; she’s absent from the moment, going through the motions, but at the same time she’s trying to feel something other than sadness which for me rings true when it comes to coping with loss.
The power that these scenes have wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for two outstanding performances from Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. Neither actor is actually present on screen for a great deal of time but their performances are sincere and without this the movie wouldn’t work. They bring emotion to a film which otherwise would’ve been pretentious and they become their characters almost immediately.
Before concluding this review I have to admit that one scene did disappoint me quite a bit, and although it didn’t ruin the experience it brought the film down in my estimation. This scene failed because it fell into the trap that the rest of the movie managed to avoid, which is that it turned to the audience and told them what they were supposed to feel. it was a hollow and unnecessary scene which felt completely out of place in such a thoughtful piece of cinema, and when watching it I couldn’t help but think that it was the director’s way of saying ‘look how clever I am’ to the audience.
The scene that I’m talking about is the most dialogue heavy moment in the movie, as a nameless character essentially delivers exposition regarding the film’s message and sets up what’s to come in the third act. It frustrated me that this scene wasn’t cut during the editing process because it seemed so obviously superfluous, and the only way to explain its presence in the film is to say that the director didn’t trust all members of the audience to understand the point of the narrative. In telling the audience what they’re supposed to feel you devalue the experience because you’re expressing a lack of confidence in their intelligence and your ability to convey meaning, and in this case it’s impossible to disregard the purpose of the scene because it directly opposes everything that the movie did well up until that point.
This criticism may seem slightly excessive when talking about such a technically sound film but once the scene had finished I spent the next ten minutes questioning how it made it into the final product, and thus my immersion was broken. Thankfully the film quickly transitioned back to being brilliant again so I was able to continue enjoying it once I let my irritation dissipate, but if this scene had been omitted “A Ghost Story” would’ve been close to a perfect film.
Nevertheless, one bad scene doesn’t extinguish everything that this movie does well. Of all the films that I’ve seen this year “A Ghost Story” is the most interesting and perhaps the most complex, not simply in concept but in how Lowery tackles that concept. The more I think about it the more infatuated I am with it, and I will definitely buy it on DVD when it’s released later this year/early next year.