Film reviews often exist in a vacuum. They are written surrounding a films release, they’re read in that small window where the films social media relevance is at its prime, and then they disappear. Somebody may stumble on the review in the future, but odds are it won’t carry as much weight as if it were read right at release. If this doesn’t make any sense, then that’s fine. This film review, and every other film review, will fall away to nothing over time. And just like the films they are written about, they will be rendered pointless and irrelevant as we age and humanity becomes a shell of its former self.
That’s essentially what A Ghost Story boils down to. Yes, it’s a film where Rooney Mara eats a whole pie in one take while dead Casey Affleck watches from a corner covered in a sheet. But it’s also a film about the permanence of mankind and what our overall footprint means to earth while we are here. This is bluntly explained by Old Joy’s William Oldham (who is credited as ‘Prognosticator’) in an extended pivotal scene that will either cause you to throw your hands up in the air and call it quits, or to lean in and say, ok balding hipster, I’m sceptical, but I’m listening.
See, Affleck’s musician character has died in a car crash on the quietest street in Austin, and his ethereal form can’t leave the house he lives in. There is a vague effort to build a narrative around Affleck and Mara’s relationship, but it’s mostly empty and pointless. At one point Affleck’s voice double sings the most twee song you’ll heart this side of a Mumford & Sons album. Mara’s character is very moved by this song. They also fight, because she doesn’t feel at home in the house at all and wants to move elsewhere. But then he dies! So they can’t move, and he is forced to remain at this house seemingly for eternity, only periodically communicating with the ghost who lives next door (played by Ke$ha, yes, really). It’s all very surface level stuff, with the pure intention of being deeper than it actually is.
In some aspect, A Ghost Story is the anti-Manchester By the Sea, a film that is a powerful essay on grief. Where Manchester looked at the path that is taken by those who remain after having lost a loved one, A Ghost Story looks at the emptiness of being dead. Even with its 1.33:1 aspect ratio (replete with rounded corners, of course) and forced shades of grey aesthetic, A Ghost Story is a film that is void of personality. After all, Affleck walks through the film dressed in the sheet that covered his dead body. Where E.T. dressed in the same garb at Halloween, ever the curious alien wanting to interact with everything else in the world, Affleck’s silent spectre mostly stands and observes.
A sequence where he interacts with the first family who have taken up residence in the house he ‘haunts’ comes off as a little racist given they are a Mexican family and he manages to destroy everything they have and scare them away from living in the house. However, I have a feeling that this is me projecting on to the film, rather than the film actually saying something about white fragility and the fear of ‘others’ coming in and taking over their homes and lives. Just like the famed ‘Rooney Mara eats a pie in one five minute sitting’ scene, A Ghost Story is filled with moments that are supposed to appear grander than they actually are. That is, until the last half hour.
(It’s worthwhile noting that Rooney Mara has never eaten a pie before in her life. If the scene where she does finally eat one is any proof, there is a strong feeling that she has also never been in the same room as a pie before. The way she attacks the pie with her fork suggests that at some point in her past, a pie did something very nasty, causing massive emotional scarring, and thus, had to pay the price for it. This may appear to simply be Mara’s representation of ‘grief’, but I’m quite unsure about that.)
The main question that remains at the end of A Ghost Story appears to be that of ‘what is the point of even doing anything in your life?’ Why even try when at the end of everything, you’ll be dead, your friends will be dead, and everything you ever did will be forgotten? It’s in the final half hour of the film that A Ghost Story throws aside its vague and simply eye-rolling tropes and goes for broke with its seemingly ‘fuck it all’ attitude as Affleck’s ghost starts moving through time. His house is destroyed, buildings are erected around him, neon lights fill the skyline, and just as quickly as they arrive, they are gone. Suddenly, he’s back in the 1700’s as white settlers lay claim to a slice of land in rural Texas. He simply stands and observes this ever changing world, until he is back in the present, witnessing and bothering present day Mara and Affleck’s couple, doing ghosty things in the night (you know, bumping things, making pianos go ‘bang’, scratching the wall, aka ghosty things).
Writer/director David Lowery aims to channel another cinematic Austinite – Terence Malick – with multiple ethereal sequences (there is more than one shot of the universe). Unlike many Malick films, there appears to be an attempt at a cohesive story here. A Ghost Story may infuriate you as a viewer, and even with its technical flourishes, you may ask yourself at the end – what the heck did I just watch? Or, in some cases, why the heck did I just watch that? This is not a film for everybody – heck, for about fifty minutes of its run time, I was certain that this was not a film for me. But, for some reason that I cannot explain, a week and change after watching it, I cannot get A Ghost Story out of my head. It’s both one of the best films of the year, while also being one of the worst films of the year. Watch it at your peril.
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ke$ha
Writer: David Lowery