Meaning, connection, loss, and what we leave behind after death are all subjects tackled in director David Lowery’s (Pete’s Dragon – 2016, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) latest oeuvre, which made its premiere at this year’s Sundance festival. It is somewhat a return to familiar ground for him in that he has reteamed with his two lead actors from his 2013 film, Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. While last time together the trio told a more traditional tale this time out they have really bitten off a mouthful.
Difficult does not go deep enough into what it is they are trying to accomplish with A Ghost Story. Despite what the title of the film might lead you to believe it could not be further from your traditional ghost story. Not scary or gory in the least. Rather it is a rather muted and allegorical look at death and all that comes with it. A rather important facet of the human condition. Really what great films are based upon.
A youngish couple are living in harmony in a house in a pretty rural area. Though they seem to be in love there is some undercurrent of discord in their relationship. Something is going on that we are not fully aware of.
Before we get to figure that out a tragedy occurs. The husband (Casey Affleck – Manchester By the Sea, Gone Baby Gone) is killed. This leaves the wife (Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Carol) left alone to pick up the pieces of her life and try to carry on.
Unbeknownst to her she is not exactly alone as her departed husband is still there. Hovering around the house in a white bedsheet. Not able to vocalize with her or communicate in any way. Or so it seems. Painfully he has to watch as his wife goes on with life without him.
Throughout the 92 minutes of the film it kept jumping back into my mind (as I had to occupy it somehow) that Casey Affleck really scored a sweet gig with this role as he has precious few lines to learn and spend most of his time onscreen silently underneath a white bedsheet. He just has to stand, hover or sit down in the background of most scenes. None of the usual pressure of having to convey emotion through his facial expressions or words. Seems like easy money to me, no? Bottom line was that I was distracted throughout wondering if it was actually Affleck beneath the sheet or some “stunt” double.
Rooney Mara had the trickier job of actually having to act. And doing plenty of it while ignoring the lurking and omnipresent white sheet. I have always found her to by a layered, interesting to watch actress and nothing she does here dissuades me of that. There is a rather moving (and again too long) scene of her on the kitchen floor eating an entire pie in her grief (a 9 minute scene!!). But in the end, again, I found it difficult to watch someone do nothing for long stretches. At times I had to hold myself back from yelling “Come on, get on with it!” at the screen.
Obviously we are supposed to be feeling not only the grief of those left behind after a death, but that of the dead person. The dead person who has to watch life go on. I could not find myself connecting with this ghost and what it was going through. As much as I wanted to (subjects are very interesting to me) and tried.
Was it the fact that I was distracted by the classic (and admittedly rather humourous in the beginning) depiction of a ghost – someone covered in a white sheet with two holes cut out for the eyes? I don’t think so as I think of myself as a little more sophisticated that that. It was something more…or maybe more accurately is to say that it was something less.
I understood the message of life being cyclical, but other films have done this more effectively. Yes, I can understand that having to watch a loved one move on without you must be painful. But it was a pain I wasn’t sharing because of the way it was delivered.
There are plenty of nods to other directors like Terrence Malick and Christopher Nolan, but it is done in enough of a unique way that A Ghost Story is not just derivative or homage. The visuals (shot in a boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio) and music at times are both stunning. In the end I found Lowery’s style indulgent and a little too self-conscious.
For me, the most entertaining part of the film was when the name of one of the studios behind the film appeared onscreen – Scared Sheetless