Review: A Ghost Story (2017)

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Director David Lowery composes an elegy on the concept of life in A Ghost Story, a film whose ambitions in scope ultimately undercut its central story.

Death is the universal finality at the end of all of man’s accomplishments and achievements. More often than not, it comes when unexpected and those who are left behind are often left wondering what might have been as they try to process what this loss means to their life. How will they move forward; can they move forward. Eventually, as times passes by, we come to accept this new world made emptier by the absence of those we loved. We try to make our way forward as best we can, haunted by a loss that grows smaller over time but haunts us in little ways we don’t realize until they arise. David Lowery tries to explain those little ways loss haunts us over time from the perspective of a ghost in his latest film A Ghost Story, a film that would ultimately work much better as a short.

Casey Affleck plays C, a musician living in the country with his wife M (Rooney Mara). The two of them are planning on moving out of their home they lived in for some time but C is conflicted about leaving. It’s inferred the two are having issues in their relationship. Shortly after, C is killed in a car accident just outside their home. At the morgue, M identifies his body and shortly after he seemingly gets up unharmed, throwing a sheet over his naked body as he explores the hospital. C encounters a door of light but doesn’t go inside and the door eventually disappears, as he eventually makes his way back to his home, draped by the sheet with 2 eyeholes like a cartoon ghost. He watched M grieve and time seems to go by as through the blink of an eye, until finally M leaves and C stays with the home, determined to uncover the meaning behind a handwritten note M hides in the wall before she leaves the home forever. Years and even centuries go by as C struggles to find a meaning in his life he left behind, haunted by the ghost of what might have been.

On paper, the basic plot of A Ghost Story is a haunting and compelling one. However, Lowery makes several choices in the film which ultimately create a detachment between the viewer and the film that make it difficult to engage with the film. The film is framed in a 4:3 square throughout as though we are seeing the film through a limited scope. The reasoning seems to be to show the viewer how empty the world can be without life but its a distracting affectation that keeps the viewer at arm’s length. C never feels like he is our narrator or guide in the film, rather someone who just happens to be in our field of vision. We see C stand in the corner almost off-screen as M eats a pie alone in grief for a scene lasting seemingly forever. To her credit, Rooney Mara is very believable in her role, but the scene goes on a little too long to the point where the ennui and sadness of her character start to verge on farcical and odd. Affleck’s role is hidden under a sheet for most of the film so you as an audience member are anthropomorphizing a sheet with 2 dots (you don’t even see Affleck’s eyes, just a black mesh under the sheet) versus seeing an actual performance for the bulk of the film. The same point about the loneliness of grief could’ve been made more economically on the screen in terms of shots used and the way Lowery lingers on shots for minutes at a time leads to an odd sameness throughout the film. Halfway through the film, as C’s ghost starts travelling through time, including a futuristic cityscape, the film loses its grounding as a meditative elegy and becomes little more than Terence Malick’s Book of Life by way of Koyaanisqatsi. The cosmic scale doesn’t match the film’s style and ultimately robs the film of the lingering questions the film raises about the meaning of life and relationships.

Ultimately, A Ghost Story falls flat. While the cinematography is at times inspired and Lowery has something to say, its hard to tell what that is. Some may find the film’s affectations and style a breath of fresh air, but they also serve to set up too much artifice between the film and the viewer; a literal sheet between us and the film we should be engaging with.

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