A Ghost Story (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting to be entertained by “A Ghost Story” are likely to be disappointed because it is not a horror film but a meditation on loss, loneliness, and time. In other words, it uses the idea of a ghost as a metaphor, not a literal thing that reveals itself to people when it wishes to scare them to death. While its approach is certainly admirable, the material does not embed itself deeply in the mind like great dramas do. I walked away from the picture thinking it was a rather neat gimmick than a compelling story worth further rumination.
The apparition under the white sheet is the spirit of a man (Casey Affleck) who has met an untimely demise. After his wife (Rooney Mara), also nameless, identifies his body in the morgue, the ghost follows her home and observes her grieving process. Time goes by and eventually she attempts to continue living. Her recovery signals completion when finally she moves out of the house they once shared. Yet the ghost remains and the house is inhabited by a series of tenants. The tenants, too, move on sooner or later but the ghost is left behind. This is a story that touches upon one of our greatest fears: the inability to do anything when a situation demands that we do otherwise.
Mara and Affleck are solid in portraying a couple who lead an ordinary life. Although the script does not given them many lines, these performers know how to communicate plenty using only their eyes and body language. There is a richness to their portrayal and one cannot not help but wonder how much more fascinating the characters might have been had the screenplay been less experimental or sparing with its dialogue and actually allowed the characters to express themselves as real people tend to do. In its attempt to deliver something different, at times it ends up shooting itself in the foot.
Another example that achieves mixed results is its utilization of long takes. Let us talk about the widow eating a whole pie. Must the audience really watch the performer gulp down every bite to the point where the situation becomes silly and comedic? Yes, in real life, a person who is deeply angry or upset may actually eat the entire pie. But it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to frame situations in a cinematic way. Writer-director David Lowery might have gotten away with it had he had adopted a sort of cinéma vérité style for the project.
The final fifteen to twenty minutes is when the picture completely goes off the rails. For some reason, the ghost develops the ability to experience the future, the past, and even revisit memories. It feels odd, forced, and pretentious. (Don’t get me started on ghosts communicating telepathically.) The careless leaping across time underlines a lack of substance, a desperate move to remain intriguing.
“A Ghost Story” offers watchable performances and some striking imagery, such as the decor of the house based on the people currently living there, but eye-catching superficial characteristics do not make up for the material’s lack of urgency, especially when it reminds us of our mortality, our limited time with our loved ones. Here is a film that gets in the way of itself. It is clear that there is a good idea here but it is not realized fully.