Film Review: A Ghost Story

by Carrie Kahn on July 14, 2017

Should the spirit move you to see this movie, ignore it 

Casey Affleck plays a bed sheet clad ghost in A Ghost Story.

Boo! Sorry if I startled you, but such an opening seems appropriate for a review of A Ghost Story, writer/director David Lowery’s new film about, yes, a ghost – replete in Casper-esque white sheet with eyeholes and all. But this ghost isn’t exactly friendly; in fact, he’s sad. Bereft, even. And lost. He needs closure. And you will be yearning for it, too, if you choose to sit through this pretentious slog masquerading as a profound meditation on grief.

I’ll say this for Lowery, though – he’s not afraid to go in different directions. In 2013 he made a splash with the indie hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Bonnie and Clyde style crime drama that garnered a Sundance Grand Jury prize nomination. Then three years later he tried his hand at a children’s animated feature with Pete’s Dragon. And now he’s back, reuniting his Saints co-stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in a quiet indie picture that at best can be described as, well, let’s be generous with different, and, at worst, as flat out dull.

Affleck and Mara play a nameless couple, known only in the credits as C (Affleck) and M (Mara). Residing in a small house in suburban Texas, they seem happy enough, aside from arguing about whether or not to move: she wants to; he doesn’t. That argument solves itself when C dies unexpectedly in a car accident, leaving M grief-stricken and alone.

Except she’s not alone. C is still with her, only she doesn’t know it. We see C rise up from a gurney at the hospital, still covered by the hospital sheet, and make his way back to the house, where he watches M through his sheet. That Lowery’s ghost is quite literally the ghost of our childhood Halloween costumes is a somewhat clever idea, but not enough of a novelty to sustain our interest in watching the Ghost of C mope and pine through an entire a film. And for those wondering, apparently that really is Affleck under the sheet, doing all his acting with the smallest of head and hand gestures, which, actually, proves to be one of the film’s more effective elements (a neighboring ghost in a flowered sheet is played by Lowery himself, and the subtitled Ghost dialog between the two is the only mildly amusing part of the picture).

Rooney Mara’s widow is soooooo sad. Can’t you tell?

Affleck’s ghost doesn’t get a monopoly on moping and pining, however. Mara also moves through the picture morosely and virtually silently, and Lowery gives her an interminably long scene in which she does nothing but sit on the kitchen floor and eat an entire pie left by her realtor, with C standing by watching. Every time you think to yourself, “This scene has to end… now… okay… NOW,” it doesn’t. And it still doesn’t. While Lowery’s attempt to show the devastating effects of grief is laudable, his methods just don’t work here; we merely end up uncomfortable, and deeply bored. The problem is that M’s grief is internal, and so depicting her wordless and alone can only convey a limited amount of emotional depth.

It’s interesting, then, to note that Affleck was in a far, far better movie about grief just last year: Manchester by the Sea, which quite possibly is the finest movie about grief ever made. That film was successful because we could see and hear the characters react to one another, allowing us to feel the intensity of their pain, in all its authentic rawness. Here, though, with just Mara and Affleck silent and alone, their anguish, while present, is much more static, and, as a consequence, the audience becomes so removed from it that it’s hard to become deeply invested in their loss.

C’s ghost hanging around does have a narrative purpose, however. M puts a note in a crack in the house’s wall and paints over it, as she prepares to finally move; earlier in the film she tells C she used to leave such notes as a child, when her family moved a lot. So poor C’s ghost can’t rest until he can uncover and read that note. Just like the traditional white sheet, then, this widely held cliché that ghosts have “unfinished business” before they can be at peace plays a central role in Lowery’s screenplay. Remember Patrick Swayze in Ghost? Or the upset spirits in the housing development in Poltergeist? At least those ghostly characters had legitimate reasons for sticking around. That C is spending eternity trying to read a tiny scrap of paper doesn’t feel nearly as exciting as solving your own murder or taking vengeance on those who destroyed Native American burial grounds.

Happier days for M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck), when C was, you know, alive.

And the word “eternity” brings us back to the next crucial aspect of Lowery’s film. Not only does C haunt M, but even after she leaves the house, he hangs around, hoping to finally get at the tiny note. We watch as he moves back and forth from the future of a glossy high-rise built on the land the house was on, to the past, when homesteaders first settled on the spot of the very house M and C will live in. And we see other residents of the house in the more recent present, including some millennials at a boozy party. The longest stretch of dialog in the entire film is actually in this scene, when a mansplaining arrogant jerk (musician/actor Will Oldham) goes off on one of those pot and alcohol fueled monologues on the nature of art, life, death, immortality, and posterity. This long-winded, uninterrupted lecture is the closest Lowery comes to inserting a pointed message in the film, and it’s fitting that it’s delivered by a pompous jackass. 

Lowery, in fact, seems to think he’s making some sort of Big and Important statement about not just sorrow and loss, but also the cyclical nature of time and space in the vein of Terrance Malick. Unfortunately, though, the whole affair instead feels like a tedious chore. There are, mercifully, two bright spots in this otherwise trying exercise, however; composer Daniel Hart’s soundtrack is more haunting and lovely than the film itself, and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo does give us some achingly poetic, stark visuals, especially of C’s stock still, forlorn ghost waiting and watching in the grassy suburban fields.

And the film’s production company is called “Scared Sheetless,” which, when the name flashes on screen at the beginning credits, will give you a brief moment of delight, the likes of which you won’t see again for the next 90 minutes. “We do what we can to endure,” Oldham’s pontificating party-goer tells his poor trapped listener, and if you can endure this affected, self-important cinematic grind, well, more power to you.

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A Ghost Story opens today in San Francisco at the Landmark Embarcadero and the AMC Kabuki, and will expand to East Bay and Peninsula theaters next week.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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