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Review: A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story (2017)

Directed by: David Lowry

Premise: A couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) live together in a modest house. When the husband dies in a car accident, he returns to their home as a sheet covered ghost. After she moves out he remains in the house and witnesses the lives of future tenants.   

What Works: A Ghost Story is ostensibly about a haunting but it is really a meditation on the relationship between time and human existence. Although the film consists of a chain of events presented in a mostly linear sequence, this isn’t really a story. The film begins by establishing a married couple who are separated by death when the husband dies in a car accident. The rest of the movie presents Casey Affleck’s character as a silent form concealed by a white bedsheet with two eye holes cut out of it. He does a few things around the house but he’s mostly a spectator throughout the picture. As a cinematic meditation on time and place and existence, A Ghost Story is mostly successful. The specter remains in the house after his wife moves out and he is witness to the various other people who live there as well as to the gradual decay and eventual demolition of the building. The point of the movie is to illustrate the transitory nature of our existence. This is a bold thing to suggest when so much of art and cinema is about the opposite. Quite a lot of mainstream storytelling places humanity at the center of the universe and reassures individual viewers of the immutability of the human spirit. A Ghost Story punches a hole in that idea. It is not the first to do so and A Ghost Story is comparable to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, a lot of movies with this kind of theme and scope are quite long and ponderous. It’s impressive what A Ghost Story accomplishes in just ninety-two minutes. As its title suggests, A Ghost Story is about a haunting and the novelty of the movie includes the way it reshapes the possibilities of haunted house stories. In horror pictures about supernatural infestations, the spirit is angry or belligerent because of past sins. There are no sins here, just a being who is frustrated by the finiteness of his own existence. A Ghost Story uses the concept of a haunting in a way that speaks to what ghosts really represent: the shadows of the past and people trapped in a particular place. The film reveals a way of thinking about the supernatural in cinema that has great potential for future moviemakers.

What Doesn’t: A Ghost Story has been made in a way that deliberately evades and frustrates the way viewers are accustomed to consuming a motion picture. The people of this film aren’t really the subject of the movie. A Ghost Story is about the concept of time and humanity’s relationship with that abstract concept. As that the movie mostly works and accomplishes what it sets out to do but A Ghost Story denies viewers most of the pleasures of movie going. As a result it’s not going to appeal to the Friday night crowd. However, viewers who come into A Ghost Story knowing what they are going to get might find that the movie under delivers. The film makes observations about the finiteness of our existence and the puniness of human accomplishments in the grand scheme of the universe. While the movie packages that idea in a way that is unique and much more concise than a lot of other attempts, it doesn’t add very much to the concept. Anyone who has considered their mortality or the smallness of their existence will probably be ahead of the movie. Meanwhile, viewers who haven’t made that consideration or aren’t curious about it probably won’t be interested in what the movie has to say. In a few moments, A Ghost Story strains its own novelty with long shots in which nothing much is happening. That’s the thesis of the movie but at times the filmmakers belabor the point.

Bottom Line: A Ghost Story is going to be a tough watch for a lot of viewers and even the art house crowd will find this movie testing their patience. However, A Ghost Story exudes intelligence and humanity and it is one of those great pictures that concretizes something ineffable about our lives. 

Episode: #659 (August 6, 2017)