A Ghost Story (2017)

 

If you watch the trailer for this film, you will not be expecting a horror movie. The tone of the preview clearly outlines that this is a meditative film about the afterlife and not a Halloween fright flick. The impression the ad leaves you with is that this movie is going to contemplate the emotions of grief and loneliness. It turns out however, to have bigger things on it’s mind, although what those things are is not entirely clear to me. The tagline on the poster says “It’s all about time.” So if you are in the mood for a slow moving, abstract story about the metaphysics of death, her it is.

The above introduction might give the impression that I did not like the film. On the contrary, there are a number of things that the film does that are intriguing and thoughtful. Writer/Director David Lowery clearly has things on his mind, but he is taking his time getting them into ours. I thought the film he made last year, the re-imagining of “Pete’s Dragon“, was wonderful. There are quiet moments of beauty that get lingered over and many shots are clearly carefully composed. The reservation I have is that the point of it all is more opaque as the film goes along. The mediation of grief is one of the shortest elements of the film. The widow is shown in despair and coping in very mundane ways. Her story though disappears halfway through the film. At one point the “Ghost” in the story essentially commits suicide. Yeah, I know that does not make much sense but none of this is supposed to be taken literally, my hesitation is that It’s not very focused on how we should try to digest it. The turn involves a switch in time, from the future to a past maybe a century earlier. When the past starts to replay itself, I guess we are to see existence as an infinity mirror. The closest we get to any explanation of why is the pontification of a beer guzzling philosopher at a house party that the “Ghost” lingers through.

 

The deliberate pacing worked for some scenes but in others I found it very off putting. Two examples can help illustrate. First, when the couple featured in the story first hear a sound in the middle of the night, after they check for it’s source and return to bed, they cling to each other very intimately. It’s not a sex scene or any kind of exposition, it is just a few moments of silent hugging, kissing and nuzzling, much as any couple might engage in when both are awake and want the other to know that they care.  It goes on for a few minutes but it leads to nowhere. As a character moment I think it tells us something about their relationship that we might not have know. The second extended scene involves the widow, sitting on the kitchen floor, alone, eating a pie. We see every bite and the mucus dripping from her nose as she is grieving, but it is all too much and too long. Lowey is making a film where the camera rarely moves. The shots are static because that’s the way he wants us to perceive time. Unfortunately it also tries our patience when it happens repeatedly.

This year’s Academy Award winning actor, is the star of the film, but he appears in maybe five to ten minutes of the film. Casey Affleck is fine in those scenes, but there is nothing to suggest that the spirit, embodied by a hospital bed sheet, is in any way the actor we know. The performance that dominates the movie is a pantomime by an image of a child’s version of a ghost. This is the accomplishment of the director and not the actor. I doubt that Affleck stayed on set to sit under a sheet and not move for long stretches of time. Jack Nicholson famously told Michael Keaton when they made “Batman” to let the costume do the acting. That is exactly what happens here. Rooney Mara fares a little better but her part is also almost without dialogue. The way in which she is displayed sitting on the bed or the floor, or looking out a window, is all a directors choice and it largely works. The two leads have faces that are not used very vividly in the movie, and the rest of them is minimal as well.

I suspect that this experimental type film will be attractive to fans of existentialism. I prefer narrative and character, but I was intrigued by the ideas in the film, at least up to the point where the issue of the infinite became the focus. This is going to be one of those films that when written about, says more about the reviewer than anything else. I hope this commentary does not make me appear to be too shallow, but I do want to appear to be honest. I sort of liked it, but I was also irritated at times. Frankly, you will have to make up your own mind.

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