Mark Reviews Movies

A Ghost Story


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Lowery

Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez, Will Oldham, Rob Zabrecky, Kesha Sebert

MPAA Rating: R (for brief language and a disturbing image)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 7/7/17 (limited); 7/14/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 14, 2017

After a couple minutes or less into the five-minute scene of a character eating a pie, one might wonder, as I did, why we're watching someone eat a pie straight from its dish for this long. The thought is undoubtedly writer/director David Lowery's point of including the scene, which happens over the course of two unbroken shots—one of her eating the pie while standing up, after doing some dishes and staring into a garbage bin and going through the mail, and the other of her eating while sitting on the kitchen floor.

The first question, of course, is why she's eating the pie in the first place, but that becomes irrelevant, as we notice that she's crying while she stabs and digs a fork into the pastry. She has just lost someone she loves. It's either her husband or her boyfriend, although likely the former. The fact that we don't know for certain tells us something else about the film. There's something elemental about Lowery's storytelling here. We don't need to be told whether this couple is married or just in a romantic relationship. That's not the point. The only important thing is that we know they're in love—or, at least, they were at some point.

From its title to its execution, everything about A Ghost Story is simple. It tells the story, naturally, of a ghost. The ghost here is not a visual effect. It's neither an invisible presence nor a frightening one. The ghost is represented in the vein of a child's Halloween costume, portrayed by an actor wearing a white sheet, with holes cut out where the eyes would be—if it had any. It's clear the actor is wearing a black mask beneath the sheet, draining the character of the ghost of any, well, character.

There's nothing human about it, because of the way the sheet eliminates any human shape, any ability to register anything but broad movements, and any emotion. The phantom spends most of the film standing, sitting, or crouched in place, with its head turning to follow or look at a living person in its vicinity. When it walks, its motions are slow and deliberate. It does not speak, because no living person could hear it anyway.

Even when it does have the opportunity of communicating with a fellow ghost, the conversation is wordless—a single wave acknowledges a greeting, before Lowery offers us subtitles of what is being said without words or gestures (a very funny moment, if only because there's very little in terms of blatant humor here). The ghosts don't have much to say to each other. The other ghost says that she is waiting (We can assume its former gender because its sheet has a floral pattern). Our ghost asks for whom she's waiting. The neighboring ghost doesn't remember.

The conversation is brief, but it speaks volumes about the nature of this existentially terrifying vision of an afterlife—destined to forget and to be forgotten. The film is about time—how it's spent living, how it jumps forward without anyone else caring much in death, how it amounts to a lot of waste in the big picture of a universe that either is going to die one day, as its fabric expands until it has to collapse, or is eternal. That, it seems, is why Lowery has us watch a character eat a pie for as long as he does. We don't just have to know that time is moving forward beyond our control. We have to feel it.

Again, this is the story of a ghost that looks like a man in a cheap Halloween costume. The specter is played by Casey Affleck, whose character, in life, is only named C. He loves a woman only known as M (Rooney Mara). She wants to move out of the house, but he wants to stay. He dies in a car accident just down the block from the house. She goes to identify the body, and after she leaves (and a lengthy beat of staring at the sheet-covered corpse), he rises. Now with the vacant eyeholes that let us know he's a spirit, he wanders through the hospital, turns down a chance to move through a mysterious doorway of light that opens before him, and walks a long distance home. He watches as she moves on with her life, and then he watches as life in the house moves on without any memory of either of them.

That's it in terms of story. Out of its simplicity, though, comes the film's capacity to transcend that simplicity. If it were anything more, we would instead be paying attention to its plot mechanics, its special effects, its rules for what a ghost can and cannot do, or anything else that Lowery could have included here. Lowery gives us the basics—in terms of story, effects, costumes, sets, and rules (The ghost, we gather, cannot leave the house, although Lowery redefines that house as the story progresses). He takes them and runs, giving us a film that is bursting with ideas about the loneliness of any kind of existence, time's uncaring march toward a series of inevitable endings, the cyclical nature of loss, and the desperation to scrape out any meaning in life and in death—no matter how small and inconsequential that meaning may be in the unfathomable life of the universe.

There are other residents and visitors to the house as the ghost jumps forward in time, without any rhyme or reason except that it must, at times, move this quickly within the span of eternity. M receives a gentleman caller (played by Barlow Jacobs), which shows us that he can interact with the physical realm in moments of great emotion.

A single mother (played by Sonia Acevedo) and her two children (played by Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Gutierrez) move in and go through their daily lives, until the ghost realizes that they are intruding on the only life he wants to know. A party happens at some point after that, giving an amateur philosopher in nihilism (played by Will Oldham) the opportunity to give some thematic shape to the film, which—until then—is mostly about the melancholy and dread of being trapped in a claustrophobic existence (The film was shot in a boxy aspect ratio that gives it that feeling, as well as the nostalgic sense of some lost home movie).

The film is boldly, unapologetically different and challenging. It requires some significant patience (for its lengthy setup, which offers plenty of static shots—sometimes of empty spaces—playing out in relative silence) and an openness in considering, not only what's on screen, but also how its pacing (which shifts dramatically as the ghost's surroundings change) affects us. As the ghost's tale moves further and further into the future, before doubling back on a past that existed even before its time, A Ghost Story demands thorough and, at times, frightening introspection on the nature of existence.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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