Movie Review: A Ghost Story
This meditation on grief, loss and time is told in a simple but effective story in which the dead spirit is represented by a sheet with two eye holes
A Ghost Story
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Directed by: David Lowery
Running time: 92 minutes
By Jay Stone
Not all ghost stories are frightening. In 1990, Ghost turned the idea of death into a romantic fantasy in which Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore made beautiful posthumous pottery together. In A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s stately meditation on time and grief, a ghost is a silent presence trying to connect to what is lost. At one stage, the lonely figure who is haunting his old house spies another ghost in an adjoining property.
“I’m waiting for someone,” says the second ghost, in a subtitle.
“Who?,” asks our ghost.
“I don’t remember.”
It sounds a bit like love. A Ghost Story begins with an attractive, oddly troubled couple (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) living in a slightly rundown ranch bungalow somewhere rural. He’s a musician. She goes out to work. They talk about moving. There seems to be something wrong: one evening, they hear a strange noise, to which we will circle back later. They speak in whispers. They have a piano.
None of this is spooky, just a bit unsettling. Early in the movie, we see the man — the characters are unnamed — has just died in a car accident although we never see the accident. A Ghost Story is a movie about the aftermath of things.
The dead man becomes a Halloween ghost, a long white sheet with two drooping, dolorous eyeholes. He goes back home and stands — invisible to others in the movie but there for us to see — in the corners of rooms, watching. At first he is seeing the Mara character contend with loss: in one long and slow scene, she sits on the floor, her back against the oven door, and eats an entire pie that a friend has left. She eats it with her hands, and as the scene goes on (and on) we become mesmerized by the grim, obsessive task of eating until she is sick. It is like an entire stage of grieving all on its own: denial, acceptance, gluttony.
The dead man becomes a Halloween ghost, a long white sheet with two drooping, dolorous eyeholes. He goes back home and stands — invisible to others in the movie but there for us to see — in the corners of rooms, watching…
Lowery, who also directed Affleck and Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is taking a wild chance in A Ghost Story: a ghost in a white sheet risks becoming laughably low-budget effect. But it works as both a metaphor and a symbol of a metaphor, a simple and understandable Presence whose yearning is somehow expressed in the ghost’s very posture. There is very little dialogue in the movie, and the ghost has none at all, yet Affleck — for indeed, it must be him under the cloth — manages to convey feelings of confusion, loss and abandonment with a tilt of the body or a slow turn of the head. It’s a performance that matches the motion-capture mastery that Andy Serkis brought to the new Planet of the Apes film, and it makes you redefine your idea of what acting can be.
Sometimes the ghost is frustrated, and new families in the house see his rage: cups and saucers fly off the shelves, doors slam, strange noises rattle around in rooms for reasons only we can understand. The movie then expands in time, going back and forward to previous and future owners of the property: settlers appear, high rises sprout, and we get a feeling reminiscent of the grand parade of future and past that Terrence Malick, say, sews into his movies.
In case we miss the point, there’s a scene in the middle of a bohemian party in the house where one of the guests (Will Oldham), an unprepossessing bald guy with a passionate interest in ontogeny, delivers a long soliloquy on the nature of time, aging, and death, and the meaning of legacy. “Your kids are going to die,” he reminds everyone in a speech that underlines, perhaps a little too precisely, the feelings that the rest of the film only hints at.
A Ghost Story is mostly about mood. There is a careful use of sound, altering between utter silence and a well chosen soundtrack of classical and sad indie rock tunes: the movie is like a cello solo made flesh, a compact feeling that is enhanced by Lowery’s use of a square screen format (the corners are rounded, in a sweetly realized tribute to ancient silent films.) The “story” of the movie is barely there, but the feelings it evokes are as haunting as its parade of lost spirits. The “boo” kind of sneaks up on you.
…the movie is like a cello solo made flesh, a compact feeling that is enhanced by Lowery’s use of a square screen format…
THE EX-PRESS.CA, July 22, 2017
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