How long do we carry on when the blood ceases to pulse in our veins, when the smile slowly fades, when we stop walking the well-worn paths in our homes? A Ghost Story, starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, is an expression, shot in 1970’s home movie style, of what happens when the mercurial nature of life comes unexpectedly.
I’m not typically a spoiler-based reviewer, but Affleck dies in this film. It’s not really a spoiler. He dies in a car crash within the first 10 minutes of the film. The rest of Ghost Story is Affleck’s journey as he tries to cling to the physical world and re-connect with Mara.
Stylistically, what stands out in this film is the appearance of Affleck as a ghost. He encompasses two cliched images, at times he appears as prism light—during others Affleck is a Halloween costume. A white sheet with holes cut out for sight. This iteration, the white-sheet costume, is ironic because while the ghost can see out, we cannot see into him. A childhood image is at once given a playful re-imagining, and given the viewer a reminder that, that image actually represents a dead person. In this case, a dead person who is still searching for something.
David Lowery, writer and director, makes another unique stylistic choice through his use of shots. Rather than filming in a full screen, he instead opts for an aspect ratio of 1:33:1. If you’re trying to imagine what that may look like, think of a 1970’s home movie that’s being played on a full screen. Essentially, a rounded box within the screen.
There are very few cuts in the film. I doubt if there are more than twenty-five. Scenes tend to settle. Lowery sets his shot, leaves the camera rolling, and allows the movement of the actors within the shot to dictate the action. The only movements by the camera are slow and steady dolly tracking shots. The most memorable scene from the film is Mara in the foreground sitting on the kitchen floor eating a pie, Affleck—the ghost—occupying the mid-ground, and the bathroom, acting as the background. As she eats the pie, and Affleck watches, Mara slowly breaks down. With each clang of her fork against the plate, she eats more pie, as if more pie means less grief. The camera doesn’t move. There’s no music. Just the clang of the fork, as Mara slowly sheds tears. The scene has an extremely high level of difficulty. Mara isn’t being bailed out by a quick cut or another actor she can play off of. She’s alone with the camera, as she has to try to organically grieve.
As the film carries on, Affleck has to shuttle on through time and the world. He finds another ghost, played by Ke$ha (Didn’t think I’d eve mention Affleck and Ke$ha in the same review), in what happens to be the most playful portions of the movie. Neither ghost verbally speaks. Instead, subtitles are needed for us living mortals. For two scenes, the film essentially turns into a silent dark comedy.
A Ghost Story is never as interesting as when Affleck is trying to communicate with Mara. As years and decades pass, and the ghost comes into contact with others, these interactions give little substance. What is gained is the knowledge that Affleck is suffering by holding on, as he’s unaware of where Mara is—or if she’s still alive. Still, Lowery may have had one too many hypotheticals, in terms of the people Affleck meet. Him going back in time to when settlers first founded the area, seemed like a stretch. More of a stretch than a ghost walking around an empty house in a white sheet.
This stretch is continued as the ghost looks onto a party going on at the house he once inhabited. Lowery spends this time by focusing on a guy, who seems too old to have been invited, to talk about the futility of life and art. We create to leave something, but in the end, even the most revered figures of our civilization will be forgotten one way or another. It’s a scene that falls into the telling, not showing trap. The film doesn’t need an old guy standing on his nihilistic soapbox. The whole scene feels forced and contrived.
While A Ghost Story is often powerful as it explores the possibility of how we carry on in the afterlife when our loved ones are still living, it’s a concept that runs aground. It’s a film that’s probably ten minutes too long. Much like the ghost, it overstays its welcome.
Yea, I went there…..
Note: Early Oscar Prediction, but A Ghost Story may receive a Best Original Song nomination for Dark Room’s “I Get Overwhelmed.”
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Photo credit: a24films.com