By Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham
My Rating: 9/10
PLOT: A white-sheeted ghost…on second thought, I’d better not say.
There is no way to discuss or review this movie without giving away certain key plot points that are more effective when you don’t know they’re coming, so please, if you have any intentions of seeking this movie out, ignore this or ANY other review until after you’ve seen the movie.
All good? Okay, let’s begin.
A Ghost Story is more like a meditation on its subject than any movie I’ve seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Kubrick’s sci-fi epic, A Ghost Story contains long, VERY long stretches of film that involve little or no dialogue. Sometimes there are stationary shots that simply sit and regard a scene and just…wait for something to happen. One shot especially struck me, where a character just sits on the kitchen floor and eats some pie. No dialogue, just eating. For four minutes. That’s a LOT of screen time for a film that clocks in at 92 minutes, WITH credits.
So what’s going on here? On the surface, I’ve just described the most boring film ever made. But in this case, director David Lowery’s method of storytelling is vital to what the movie’s really about.
[Here’s where the spoilers really start, last chance to bail.]
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a young couple who live in a small house in what appears to be Texas or some other Midwestern state. Tragedy strikes early on when Casey Affleck’s character (listed in the credits only as “C”) is killed in a car crash. After Rooney Mara’s character (“M”) identifies his body at the morgue, we’re treated to the first of several long takes as the camera watches her leave but stays with C’s body covered in white cloth. The seconds tick…tick…tick by, and by this time we’re wondering why we’re still here. Rather than boring me, this had the effect of moving me to the edge of my seat. I was pretty sure I knew what was about to happen, but as more and more time elapsed, my certainty ebbed away and I became galvanized. What IS going to happen?
Well, whatever it is happens, and C is now a ghost covered in a white sheet with two eye holes, looking for all the world like someone wearing a Charlie Brown Halloween costume. (“I got a rock.”) After apparently declining the opportunity to “move on”, he returns to his house, and here’s where the movie got to me. C’s ghost is now a mute witness to his wife’s grieving. We’re not quite sure what his purpose is, at least not right away. There’s no mystery to solve, no unfinished business to deal with. He just watches her. (She obviously can’t see him.)
During this segment of the movie, I was mesmerized. It’s hard for me to describe or even understand what gripped me so much in scenes where very little is happening. I found myself empathizing, not with the wife, but with the ghost. It’s one of those “what-if” questions that you pose to your friends. If you COULD come back, would you? “C” made his decision, and here he is, but his presence is bittersweet. He can see her, but she can’t see him. I felt the longing that is only apparent onscreen. Maybe this part of the movie is a Rorschach test. We see what we want to see, which makes us feel what we expect to feel. I don’t know. But I can’t deny the effect these scenes had on me personally.
As the movie progresses, we are also treated to sudden jumps forward in time. Rather than the usual fades or segues, months or years suddenly go by in a single hard cut. Time behaves differently for the ghost. He’s got nothing BUT time. Like many literary and movie ghosts, he’s rooted to one physical location, unable to leave, while the living get on with living, year after year, decade after decade. This made me empathize with him even more. How sad it must be for a spirit to bear witness to decades, even centuries passing by him, with no way to interact with the living. Oh sure, he can make light bulbs flicker and he’ll have the occasional tantrum with broken plates and floating cups. But nobody can talk to him.
Well, that’s not quite true. He has one companion. One day, through the window, he spots another ghost in the house next door. This ghost is also covered in a bedsheet with holes cut out for the eyes. They seem to communicate by, I guess, telepathy, because we don’t hear their voices, but subtitles tell us they are indeed having a conversation. In one of the saddest moments of the film, the other ghost tells C that he or she is waiting for someone…but he/she can no longer remember who it is.
If there was ever a case to be made for someone to “head toward the light” rather than remaining on Earth, that’s it. Far better, in my opinion, to complete the journey to “the other side”, whatever it may be, rather than endure an eternity of waiting for…what?
Look at me. Philosophy. That’s the effect this movie had on me. It got me to really THINKING about the kinds of topics that I normally avoid thinking about. The inevitability of death. The efforts we make to keep our memories alive after we’ve gone. Remembering those who are no longer with us. Heavy, man.
After some time, “C” eventually does find a reason to stay, beyond attachment to his wife. I won’t reveal what it is, but it’s organic, and it’s something I would certainly be invested in if I were in the ghost’s place. His attempts to fulfill his goal are poignant, and constantly being frustrated.
The final reel is where the movie may potentially lose a lot of viewers. It even lost me a little bit while I was watching it, but upon reflection, I can see where it’s going. After all, any movie made about the afterlife is pure speculation anyway, so who am I to say their concept makes no sense? There is a certain sad logic to it, after all.
There’s that word again, “sad.” This is definitely not a popcorn movie, that’s for sure. This is a thought-provoking film designed to inspire introspection and reflection. AND it’s entertaining, make no mistake. But, yes, sadness is a big part of the film. I didn’t tear up or anything, but it is filled with overwhelming heartbreak.
And yet, with that final shot, there’s a kind of triumph to the whole thing. Not the kind of triumph like at the end of Rocky or your average Spielberg movie, but a sense of completion, of sudden realization. It won’t please everyone, but it works.
A Ghost Story will mean many things to many different people. If there’s a better definition of effective “art”, I don’t know what it is.