There are few things in this world I hold in greater disdain than stupid movies. I’m talking about the action-dependent, spectacle-driven, CGI-saturated, studio-spawned, soul-sapped, Frankenstein’s monster-type movies that dominate the summer cinemascape by pandering to the lowest common denominator. Movies like the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and The Meg, which both already look more nauseating than a bucket of KFC chicken in a carnival Zipper and so thinly-written to have only used single-sided script paper.
A Ghost Story is the exact opposite of those sort of action-heavy movies. In fact, it’s so far in the opposite direction of those movies that there’s almost no action in it at all – not even simple actions like moving, talking, or facially expressing. That featured image heading my article? That’s a GIF!
The gist – brooding musician Casey Affleck dies in the first five minutes and spends the remainder of the film ‘haunting’ his home as a mute ghost who resembles a Halloween costume as worn by one of the Peanuts kids. He observes his bereaved wife Rooney Mara mourn for a while and then continues to inhabit their house long after she moves out and on with her life. There are twelve lines of dialogue. Almost nothing happens. Some shots idle for nine solid minutes. It made no money. You will never look at a pie the same way again.
Before I investigate this supernatural experience further, I will forewarn you readers who stumbled here by accident that spoilers abound in plenteousness.
A Ghost Story was… interesting, to say the very least. It was also beautiful, unique, thought-provoking, radically unconventional, melancholy, spellbinding, and just a little too pretentious. Those cinephiles who have even heard of this radar-evading film (released in 2017 and overlooked even by me) seem to be divided evenly between two camps – those who vehemently loath it and those who think it’s God’s gift to cinema, essentially making it The Last Jedi of Indie theater. I myself probably fall somewhere between the two trenches, for while I wholeheartedly value small, independently-produced films that are crafted with heart and soul, I do feel in this particular case that the artistic pendulum swung a little too far into Indie territory.
Did I hate it? Heavens no. Did I love it? Not quite. Would I recommend it? To the right people. Would I watch it again? Sure. Do I appreciate it? Absolutely. Was it flawless? Hurm.
There’s little for me to discuss on the matters of Plot or Character because there’s virtually no plotting or characterization to actually discuss. While there’s things that occasionally happen during the course of the film (sometimes even interesting things), the majority of the runtime involves Affleck’s white-sheeted apparition standing vigil in his old abode, gliding silently through scene after scene as new inhabitants come and go – a resolute pillar in the ever-flowing river of time. Affleck (known hereafter as ‘The Ghost in the Story’) initially wishes to console his grieving wife, but as the film progresses he becomes more and more detached from the material world while still being unwilling or unable to pass on from it. As the decades pass (time takes on an entirely new meaning toward the final scenes), his only motivation becomes retrieving a parting note that she inserted into a doorframe before leaving him behind forever. Still, it is unclear what he is really searching for in the pursuit of her note – or if he even knows himself after so much time. He becomes an impassive spectator on the road into eternity – a lonely spirit still haunting this mortal crust long after he’s forgotten why.
Yes, this is one of those ghastly “What does it mean?” brand of films – the ones hallowed by David Lynch fans and people who post pictures of books they’ve never read on Instagram. Not that such films don’t have their place in one’s film library, mind you, I just personally happen to prefer films that offer effective Stories as opposed to obtuse questions with no incorrect answers. For its part, A Ghost Story is not one of those overly bombastic films that demands you bask in its scholarly glow with mouth agape and tears welling in your eyes so you may better reevaluate your own existence, but one that merely invites you to watch quietly and reflect.
For a film where relatively little happens in terms of marked story beats, I must admit I was far from bored – as a matter of fact, I was wholly entranced. Many of director David Lowery’s shots were executed with such beauty and precision they evoked from these nicotine-coated lips gasps of awe. One singular shot saw Rooney Mara gazing through her living room window while The Ghost stands silhouetted in the background before another window. As I simply cannot do justice to this picturesque shot simply by describing it, I will channel all my artistic efforts into attempting to recreate it.
Another series of sequences that stood out as particularly memorable involved brief interactions between The Ghost and a neighboring female ghost inhabiting the house next door. Communicating via succinct subtitles, the ghosts make little more than small talk, with the lady-ghost (characterized by a sheet with a floral pattern) asserting that she is waiting for someone but sadly cannot remember who. When both homes are eventually bulldozed, the now-homeless lady-ghost finally acquiesces that the person she was waiting for is not coming and abruptly collapses, which may be the most startling, heartbreaking cinematic ‘death’ I’ve witnessed since that of Inside Out’s Bing Bong.
To touch on a few more positives, I was absolutely enamored with the score, which might have been the most haunting element of the entire film. It was ambient and yet tangibly tense, thoughtful while still being eerie, loud but somehow… er, quiet? Give me a sec on this one…
I also appreciated how masterfully the passage of time was conveyed around The Ghost, with months and years passing with the simple turn around a hallway corner. I would venture to say that no two transitions were the same and they largely relied on the scenery and movements of The Ghost to disguise any edits. Any lesser director might have simply employed cross-fades, 80s music montages, or even worse – time-lapse photography set to the King of the Hill theme.
That all being said, I had some issues with A Ghost Story. The first half hour (I would call it the first Act, but that would imply some semblance of narrative structure) was fairly clunky and glacially paced, with the camera often maintaining position long after all activity had moved out of frame. While I realize the passage of time is one of the film’s primary themes, these prolonged shots of dead air felt suspiciously like they were included for little reason other than to annoy action-hungry audiences. If Michael Bay once wanted critics to just accept his movies for the explosion-fests they are, so David Lowery conversely begs us to do the same with his Indie film – because Indie films just do weird things like dedicate five minutes to an uninterrupted shot of a woman eating a pie, dammit.
Yes, we come to it – the pie-consuming scene, the notoriety of which seems to precede all actual awareness of the very film that contains it. After her husband’s funeral, Rooney Mara returns home, sits on the kitchen floor, and silently consumes an entire pie… before vomiting it back up. This scene really does clock in at just over five minutes and starts to feel like a never-ending Family Guy bit that starts off funny, goes on for too long, wraps around to being funny again, and then finally peters out. I admit I didn’t hate this scene, I just think it would have been equally effective if whittled down to two minutes. Truth be told, I was far more annoyed at the philosophical monologue delivered by a hipster party-guest towards what might have been Act III. Although this lengthy pontification was loquaciously-written and accurately encapsulated all the film’s themes of legacy, memory, death, and time, it was painfully on-the-nose, a trifle self-indulgent, and violated any existing “Real People Don’t Talk That Eloquently” tropes.
Since its release, Lowery has defended shooting his film in a 4×3 aspect ratio (fullscreen), citing a desire to create an intimate, claustrophobic feel for his ghostly protagonist. Fine – but why the rounded corners? Was it truly that important to invoke the look and feel of a photograph from my grandparents’ photo album? If so, well, the effect was successful then, but I still found it far too distracting to buy it as integral to the film’s essence. See, the inherent problem with highly stylistic choices like a 4×3 aspect ratio is that the film succeeds or fails on the appeal of those stylistic choices. For instance, if obnoxious colours, cartoonish prosthetics, and matte painting backgrounds are likely to disrupt your immersion into a film then it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy the Dick Tracy movie. I myself did enjoy the Dick Tracy movie way back in the day – I just would have enjoyed it more if Warren Beatty hadn’t endeavored to make it look exactly like the comic strip. It’s the same with A Ghost Story, because if I really wanted to go through an album of old photographs I would just go over to my grandparents’ house – and they’re dead!
Although A Ghost Story is overall a good film, some of its creative brushstrokes make it feel a little like the experimental project of a film student who employs Dutch angles or dolly zooms purely for the sake of using them rather than out of artistic necessity. Granted, the student is talented and his work is worth viewing – even if only once – but it would have been better if he hadn’t spent so much time showing off.
To put it another way, it’s not unlike the self-styled website of a wannabe film critic who intentionally writes long-winded, self-aggrandizing, elitist pieces on films that came out over a year ago while plugging his poorly-drawn cartoon–
You know what, never mind.