Movie Review: “A Ghost Story,” with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara
I am not usually a person who advocates that directors work as hired hands for studio films instead of pursuing their own interests, but that is maybe what I think filmmaker David Lowery, of the irritatingly uneven A Ghost Story, should do. I’m cringing as I write this, but I’m standing by it.
Lowery’s live-action Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon was one of my favorite films of 2016, an achingly poignant creation that underscored the exquisiteness and fierceness of nature while lightly but effectively critiquing the lazy destruction of capitalism. But his previous film, 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, felt more like a derivative ripoff of other directors like Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson than a truly original work—distillation, not creation.
His latest, A Ghost Story, is more of the latter, not only because it reunites Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints but also because its lofty emotional ambitions are ultimately impossibly pretentious and frustratingly unclear. Shots are gorgeously and unnervingly composed, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I woke up a few times the night after I saw the film, feeling as if I was being watched. But while Lowery toys with our visual cinematic expectations in memorable ways (using a 1:33 aspect ratio so the film looks more square than horizontal; adding rounded corners to the edges of the film so the presentation evokes a vintage photograph), his film is negatively affected by a drastically underdeveloped script, a narrative that rejects linearity but also stumbles when trying to explain itself, and yes, the presence of alleged sexual harasser Casey Affleck, whose off-screen crap casts a shadow over the film.
I must make this clear: The fact that Affleck plays a character who returns from the dead to follow around and spy on his wife without her knowing is goddamn uncomfortable given how much that behavior seems to align with the sexual harassment he was accused of during the filming of his faux-documentary I’m Still Here with Joaquin Phoenix. None of that derailed his successful Best Actor Oscar campaign thanks to damage control and interference from brother Ben and best friend Matt Damon, but it adds an unsettling, icky layer to A Ghost Story that I can’t imagine was intentional.
Anyway. The movie itself: C (Affleck, of The Finest Hours) and M (Rooney Mara, of Kubo and the Two Strings) are a married couple living in an old house in a sort-of-rundown part of Texas; he spends his days working on his music while she searches online for another place to live—maybe a condo in the city. The house freaks M out sometimes, with mysterious sounds, illuminations, and bumps, but C wants to stay, even as it’s evident that their disagreement about the house is one of many.
A fatal car accident that takes C’s life changes everything, though, and that’s when the titular ghost comes in: It’s C, his body fully covered by the medical examiner’s sheet that M pulled over his face, with two black holes for eyes. In this macabre spin on a children’s Halloween costume, C makes his way back home, where he devotes what seems like seconds and minutes to observing M—but in reality, days, weeks, and even months pass. And when it comes time for M to move on, C remains in the house, experiencing shifts in time and space that explore our understandings of grief, love, nihilism, and closure.
Promotional materials describe A Ghost Story as a story about “finding meaning through loss,” but what is aggressively disingenuous about that description is that the film offers very little explanation for anything—for how M and C met, fell for each other, and then grew apart; what M goes through after C’s death; why C would feel so tied to a house where it seems only sadness was experienced. Lowery is clearly fascinated by the home as a simultaneously static-yet-in-flux place, but how he guides you there is flawed. The storytelling is presented in brief vignettes instead of full scenes, and that sparse approach makes it difficult to form connections to either M or C. Lowery favors long takes of on-screen stillness—M and C holding each other in bed, C devouring a pie in her grief (a forever-feeling scene that caused two fellow press members to walk out of the screening I attended), ghost C sitting on a chair in their home, or a philosophy spouter played by Will Oldham complaining about how everything is meaningless in the face of the universe’s impending self-destruction—but that kind of hyper-focus only really works when you care about what the people you’re watching are going through. The pace of A Ghost Story is too agonizingly slow, its characters too unknown and too unsympathetic, for viewers to build goodwill.
(Oh, and are there any people of color in this sad-white-hipsters version of Texas? Not really. In the film’s most rage-inducing subplot, C haunts a Hispanic family who moves in, assaulting them and terrifying them; none of their dialogue is given subtitles because duh, they’re only around to be C’s victims. But he leaves those tedious grad students, including Oldham, alone; why wouldn’t he attack them, too? In another scene, Native Americans are heard in the distance before a white settler family, including young children, is slaughtered. So yeah, no inclusive diversity here.)
On the flip side of all this is that if you view A Ghost Story as only a collection of varyingly startling and stunning images, you’ll have a better appreciation of Lowery’s strengths. That white-sheet figure striding across a verdant green field under the wide Texas sky; a closet door creaking open in the dead of night to reveal the ghost within; the shocking, split-second decay of a young girl’s body from a bloody corpse to a sunken skeleton. There are visuals here that are uncanny and unforgettable, flawed narrative aside.
A Ghost Story gets caught in itself, though, with a third act plot twist that is disappointingly gimmicky. When coupled with so much else that is problematic, Lowery’s execution of his vision is more exhausting than enlightening. A Ghost Story aims for haunting beauty, but ends up closer to unsatisfyingly infrequent eeriness than truly memorable masterpiece.