a SIFF 2017 review
Delicately Complex Ghost Story an Otherworldly Dream
C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a young married couple living in Texas. They are pondering a move, and it’s caused some arguments as they aren’t entirely in agreement. But before they can iron out those issues, C dies in a tragic accident, leaving M to deal with the prospect of what life is going to be like without him. Grief is palpable, but she soldiers on, holding onto the memories of their time together as she picks up the pieces and attempts to move forward as best she can.
Writer/director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is not the movie that plot synopsis vaguely hints at. There is minimal dialogue. The central argument between C and M is shown in snippets, flashback and montage. The longest stretch of expositional chit-chat is delivered by a side character at random party filled with strangers that takes place in the house long after our heroine has moved someplace else. At one pivotal point, Rooney Mara spends an entire five-minute shot eating a pie. This is a movie that defies convention at every turn, Lowery entering into the esoteric realm of European masters like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais (just to name three) with his latest idiosyncratic creation. Make no mistake, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or Pete’s Dragon this odd, methodically pace and utterly fascinating drama is anything but.
Everything is seen from C’s point of view. As a ghost. As visualized as a body under a white sheet. With two cut out black spots for eyes. It’s like something out of an old Scooby-Doo cartoon or a Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy from the 1940s, the absurdity of this depiction of the supernatural so silly there just aren’t the right words to describe the sight of it. Yet it works, the haunting nature of this representation of an observer stranded between worlds for reasons as nebulous as they are important striking an unimaginably deep emotional chord that reverberates deep into the soul.
That aforementioned pie scene is key to understanding what it is Lowery is attempting to accomplish. It will also likely be the singular moment where the viewer falls under the filmmaker’s spell and becomes consumed with discovering how events are going to play themselves out. If that does not happen, they’ll likely roll their eyes with incredulous disdain wondering what all the fuss has been about and want to get up out of their seats and leave the theatre that very second. It’s an almost either-or proposition, and having watched the film twice I’m fairly certain Lowery is just fine with that.
It’s a mesmerizing sequence. Virtually all one continuous take, almost ten minutes in length, this is as raw a depiction of inconsolable grief as anything put to the screen in quite some time. The gamut of emotions Mara goes through while she consumes this entire pie, what I found myself feeling as the scene played itself out, the level of anguish, anger, regret, loss, determination and love washing over the character, all of it was marvelous. The sheer physical ferocity of what the actress accomplishes in this brief, quietly tender little moment was mind-blowing, and from that point forward a movie I was moderately intrigued by became one I wouldn’t have been able to pull my eyes away from even if I had wanted to try.
Lowery plows through the years with dexterous simplicity, the world of this house, this place our ghost refuses to leave for reasons that remain a mystery until the last possible second, becomes its own sort of time machine. M moves away. A new family moves in, and C’s reaction as they attempt to change things about the place are hardly benign. But, like its own force of nature, change inevitably continues to march on no matter how much this apparition might wish otherwise, other tenements coming and going, the arrivals and departures, like all things in life, having little in the way of rhyme or reason.
What happens should be left to the imagination, Lowery’s story never what it looks like it is going to be, all of it building to a revelation where the answer to a question isn’t nearly as important as the effect it has upon the entity who has spent incalculable lifetimes searching for it. A Ghost Story is about patience, it is about resilience, it is about who we are as human beings on levels physical, spiritual, practical and metaphorical, about how we drift through the minutes of our lifetimes not ever truly realizing how precious a single second is until it is possible too late to matter. Most of all, it is a movie where the observer is us while we are also the ones under observation, the difference between life and death a mirror image where up and down trade places and knowing truth from fiction is as trivial as it is all-consuming.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)