Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Someone else in a sheet
Director: David Lowery
Running Time: 94 mins
Synopsis: Loving couple C and M (Affleck and Mara) spend their days creating music, doing up their rural house and feeling puzzled at the mysterious sounds they hear at night. Tragically C is killed in a car accident, leaving M bereaved and alone. Unbeknown to her C still remains, only invisible to her and draped in a lengthy white sheet. He has to endure the passing of time, trapped within the home they built and the sheet that covers him.
There can be quite a clear distinction between films you admire and films you actually enjoy. Predominately hailing from the arthouse circuit, their deliberate pace, low-fi mood and frequent avoidance of cinematic conventions makes said films respectable but far too often frustratingly out of reach emotionally to be truly enjoyed. Containing an 8 min sequence of Rooney Mara eating a pie, it is safe to say A Ghost Story falls into this category pretty securely.
Framed in the boxy 1:33:1 aspect to magnify the feeling of intimacy as well as giving you the vibe of a 70s home movie, A Ghost Story tells the tale of C and M (we never learn their names). Deeply in love and encroached in their small-town rural existence, but one that pulls at the hopeful dreams Rooney Mara’s M has of venturing further afield. C however adores his home, and the history he feels leeching out of its woodwork. A history he senses through the unusual sounds emanating in the dark of night. In probably the films only venture into almost horror territory a bump stirs the two of them but leads to nothing, until a later film reveal turns it into something far more profound. After they stir director David Lowery (marking a unusual directorial turn after the gently soaring family film Pete’s Dragon) follows them back into bed and we become privy to the first of many immensely drawn out static shots. Wrapped in each others arms as they silently nuzzle each other, it sells the depth of their love for one another but goes on far too long, turning something loving into something interminable.
It feels an age before the actual plot kicks in, well sorta plot. A car crash unexpectedly takes the life of C leaving M to look over his body as he lies in the mortuary. Lowery’s camera distant but the sorrow is captured effectively in the wounded hunch of Mara’s bereaved wife. C is not truly gone though. In a starkly beautiful sequence he rises from the table smothered in the white hospital sheet designed to protect his lifeless shell, and wanders the corridors before clamouring through fields towards his old home. It is haunting stuff, the sheet giving off an almost creepy horror vibe but thanks to the measured tone of Affleck’s physical performance becoming something far more ethereal. In perhaps what could be described as the easiest pay cheque seen in Hollywood Affleck then spends the rest of the film shrouded in said sheet and remaining mostly still. Silently observing his wife deal with his passing.
Bringing us to the infamous pie scene. Spoken about since the films premiere in Sundance, it is agonisingly long but given heft by Mara’s soulful sad performance. We can glimpse the shine of tears sliding down her cheek, and the stuttering choking as she rams more pie down her throat conveys the helplessness and hollowness of grief far better than words could. It is a triggering point for her and the film, as from this point A Ghost Story begins to blur and bend time around C’s hopelessly trapped spirit. The way Lowery constructs these montages of time equally stuns and bemuses. Visually it absorbs, simple editing tricks merging events as Mara begins to move on from her grief. Frustratingly the film keeps its internal logic at arms reach. We never understand the rules of C’s afterlife. We can infer from context, and the latter moments do help to crystallise things but it’s not enough to alleviate the bemusement it triggers in its audience.
Matters are not helped by the glacial pace the film adopts. Too often profundity is mired in a helpless boredom, you’re constantly demanding the film gets to the point. Things do kick in to gear after Mara leaves the picture. Finally moving on and away from the house she always disliked, but unknowingly leaving the ghostly C trapped within those four walls. He witnesses new families moving in, his anger at losing M rising up in poltergeist outbursts, before the house disintegrates back into the dirt. Only to be replaced by urbanised super structures. The world losing its appreciation for nature in favour of intense consumerism and suffocating overpopulation. It is almost Malick-ian, the way Lowery showcases all of humanities foibles and struggles with barely a word spoken. Composed, complex and by far the best moments of the film. He undercuts himself somewhat when prior to this sequence he has a drunken partygoer clumsily encapsulate all these themes in a lengthy monologue seemingly designed for those in the audience unable to comprehend what is already pretty plain to see.
To say where all this ends up and how it loops back into the central relationship would be to spoil the power of its message. The universal truth found in the mundane. The tragic inevitability of time. The hopeless longing for legacy. It is all to be found here. Alas such depth and philosophy can only go so far, the film too often closer to conceptual art gallery project than full blooded cinematic experience. Performances are tremendous. Affleck conveying quiet melancholy in the earlier scenes before he has to rely on his physicality when under the sheet, a stooped head here or a slumped shoulder there telling us all we need to know if only to a point. After awhile you do desire to delve deeper into his mindset at what must be a suffocatingly scary time for him. Mara is equally terrific, and not just because she eats a pie with utter conviction, her largely wordless performance desperately sad, her face awash with troubled mourning. Just when is it right to move on and let go of her grief?
The score is unique and soulful. The visuals evocative and striking. The direction confident and measured. It has much to admire but its cold distance from its audience is just too overwhelming to truly provide entertainment. Sure, not all films are solely for entertaining, some content to look at deeper themes or retell moments of formidable human suffering but they at least do so within the constructs of cinema that absorbs. Using performance, tone and a pertinent emotional underbelly to sell their notions. A Ghost Story is too adrift in its own pretensions, unwilling to meet its audience halfway. It is, dare I say it, just a little bit boring.
Verdict: A Ghost Story is unusual, profound and beautifully shot cinema. Sadly an aimless pace and frustrating emotional distance robs it of true filmic power.