Here’s a question for you: what do Michael Bay’s Transformers movies have in common with A Ghost Story? What element do they possess that ties them together? On one hand, you have a multi-billion grossing kinetic action franchise full of all kinds of wanton destruction – on the other, David Lowery’s movie is small and quiet. Where could the connection possibly be? Simple: audience polarization. The audience for both appears to be divided into two camps, one who enjoys the experience, one that dislikes it.
Being as this is not a Transformers review, I’ll firmly pledge my allegiance to the latter when it comes to those movies. I enjoy good visuals, but not at the expense of story, character, direction, and acting, none of which the Transformers franchise has in any measurable quantity. With A Ghost Story, I’m definitely in the former. Sure, that says more about me than it does the movies, but I’ve never been one to judge anyone on their cinematic preferences. While saying this, I can completely understand why so many people appear to really dislike A Ghost Story – I was sitting next to one all through it: my wife. She isn’t someone who automically favours the summer blockbusters, but her preference is on the dramatic side: The Founder is a movie she recently enjoyed. A Ghost Story can’t really be called a drama, because it has no centralized characters to focus on – in fact, it doesn’t even have what you would consider a plot in the traditional sense, and while it’s not unique in terms of its approach to storytelling, it definitely bucks the trend in favour of meticulous shot crafting that, at time, strays into self-indulgence.
But I was raised on a diet of Derek Jarman, David Lynch, and Jean-Luc Godard in my teens, and I absolutely love movies that consciously try to do something different, providing they’re not so over the top avant-garde that they no longer fit the definition of a movie. Experimental and arty only go so far, in my opinion, but I give filmmakers a wide latitude. I’ve never seen, and won’t see, the remake of Pete’s Dragon, but I can kind of already know what to expect from it. To know that A Ghost Story was written and directed by that same filmmaker is something I find both fascinating and exciting. Lowery is clearly an intelligent and talented writer and director, and it’s great that he was able to make two movies so close together in time, but so far apart artistically.
A Ghost Story’s very basic plot is this: Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea) and Rooney Mary (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) are a young couple living in a modest bungalow in a rural setting. They don’t appear to live a happy life. Affleck plays a melancholic musician, Rooney his more lively wife. After the tragedy that ends Act 1, the major conceit of the movie begins: seemingly fixed in a geographical spot on Earth, but not in time, Affleck’s ghost is destined to be an impartial observer of the events that happen there in his past, present, and future. The poster for the movie shows the look of the ghost, and I have to say, I loved this. I’m a huge Halloween fan – every year our home is decorated with lots of knick knacks that we’ve collected over the years, and the most common theme is the sheet-ghost. In the era of CGI-spirits designed to look creepy and horrifying, the spirit in A Ghost Story is a refreshing change. The visual is both arresting and somehow stately and funereal, in many ways tonally reminiscent of much older ghost story movies, such as the classic 1950s version of A Christmas Carol. It’s definitely this one element that made A Ghost Story compelling viewing for me. As an aside, it’s interesting to know that Affleck insisted on being the actor under the sheet, even though in terms of moviemaking there was no need for him to do so. The ghost does very little but observe events with a great economy of movement, yet even while it moves with such deliberation, it’s not a performance that only could come from Affleck. On the one day Affleck could not appear on set, he admitted recently to being unhappy when a different actor had to stand in for those shots. It’s a nice detail to be aware of, considering that before Manchester By The Sea I’d never really thought of him as anything other than Ben Affleck’s Wee Brother.
But the movie definitely slides towards self indulgence, particularly in two scenes- one featuring Rooney Mara grief-eating what looks like a full pumpkin pie. The camera watches her do this, observes her, like the ghost who remains mostly out of frame, for almost a full five minutes. No close ups, no edits, no music, only the sound of her fork dinging the glass dish and the sound of her eating. I found this to be a beautiful scene, but it’s too long. Like a couple of scenes earlier in the movie I questioned the point of how long they remained after the main thrust of the scene had been completed. The other scene features one character spouting high school existentialism about the impermanence and ultimate pointlessness of human feelings against the context of the universe. I say high school insultingly, because his blowhard attitude and argument is mostly unformed and unsophisticated. Sure, we’re all ants against the cosmos, etc etc, but our lives are defined and made important by the context of how we fit into our immediate place in time and space, how we love and hate each other. How we eat pumpkin pie when grief stricken. Nevertheless it’s an important scene because it sets up certain cues for the rest of the movie – unfortunately for me it set up expectations for something that never came to happen and I was immensely disappointed by that. I won’t say exactly what, but the clue is in the poster. Could have been budget, or maybe a conscious decision of Lowery to not follow that thread to its natural conclusion.
I know three other people who have seen the movie, and I am the only one who loves it. The other three didn’t like it for a number of reasons: the lack of plot, the mostly unrelatable characters, even the look of the ghost, and that’s fair. I greatly enjoyed it because early on I knew that this was going to be more of an experience than a typical movie viewing, and many of the elements I encountered within it are things I appreciate and enjoy anyway. One part that we all could agree on, however, are a couple of scenes featuring an unexpected other character. The scenes between this character and the ghost are poignant and emotionally affecting – not uplifting, not what you’d call humourous, but somehow simultaneously happy and sad. I found these scenes to be powerfully beautiful.
You may, as I did, understand that Act 1 introduces a circular plot. These kinds of plots generally involve an “Aha!” reveal, and it’s the same here, but brilliantly it also reveals a subtle key to the tragedy that ends the act and sets the story in motion. Like the rest of the movie, this reveal feels both essential and meticulous and it’s handled very well by Lowery and Affleck.
A Ghost Story is not the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it’s definitely one of the best.
© Andrew Hope, 2017