“A Ghost Story” (2017) Review

Dir. David Lowery; Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

[3 out of 4 stars]

Watching A Ghost Story (2017) reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s line from Slaughterhouse-Five: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” In Vonnegut’s novel, we follow the life of an American soldier across decades, often traveling through time to do so. A Ghost Story approaches narrative in a similar way, focusing intensely on the lives of one couple while jumping throughout time to place the story in context. The experience of watching the film is, like Billy, unmoored and unrestrained by time, dragging out moments and leaping across centuries. It’s a bit disconcerting once this unsticking in the film really begins in full force, but it quickly becomes somehow comforting to its viewers. There are no boundaries here, and the world and time feel limitless rather than constraining. 

A Ghost Story grapples with a variety of ideas — grief, loss, and the impermanence of being — through a straightforward yet unusual plot. The main character is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a ghost, i.e. Casey Affleck under a sheet. At the film’s inception, he (known only as C) lives happily with his wife (known as M, played by Rooney Mara) in a small house in Texas. After C is killed one morning in a car crash, M visits his body in the hospital before covering his face with a sheet. After a few moments, C sits up and walks out of the hospital, still covered by the sheet. This is not a supernatural or creepy film. It is immediately clear that we have spanned beyond our own reality, since no one notices C’s ghost at all. A portal of light opens itself for C in the hospital, but he chooses not to enter it. Instead, he walks back to his house and his wife and spends the rest of the film standing in the house, watching scenes play out before him. Essentially, he is viewing the house’s lifespan, not only scenes between him and his wife, but also scenes that took place long before they lived there as well as after they left. Sometimes he intervenes in these scenes in small ways — throwing books or flickering the lights — but otherwise he is merely a silent witness. 

Normally, I enjoy slow — what some might call “boring” — narratives. Long, slow-burn emotional dramas always attract me, and I was the only person in my high school class who was not bored to tears by John Steinbeck’s chapter in The Grapes of Wrath that consists entirely of a turtle walking down a dirt road. But A Ghost Story takes “slow” to a new level, which I at first found — dare I say it — boring. The camera spends minutes showing M dragging a piece of furniture out to the curb or driving down the road. But as the film progresses, its style draws us into a truly unique film. Movement is limited, as C walks everywhere, and much of the film is shot within the house. There is very little dialogue, and our two protagonists hardly talk at all. Yet the film felt somehow comforting to me. I watched it shortly after my grandmother died and was working through my own grief as the characters on-screen worked through theirs. And though much feels unexplained in the film (why does C remain rooted to the house even after M leaves, rather than going along with her?) it does not need to provide concrete answers to be able to tap into universal human truths: grief and loss, change and loneliness, and the importance of the physicality of the places that are home to us. 

Mara is, as she was in films like The Social Network (2010) and Carol (2015), fantastic and does with microexpressions what lesser actors could only accomplish in monologues. She is given very few lines, so it has to be a very physical performance. In one scene, she sits on the floor of the kitchen and eats her way through an entire pie a sympathetic friend made her, until she makes herself sick. Her slumped posture and determined chewing convey her sense of loss and helplessness as well as the sense of fruitlessness she feels about her life after the death of her husband. But Affleck’s physicality is what truly stands out here — how does one portray anger or sadness when you are draped entirely in a sheet with just two black holes for eyes? It all comes down to posture and movement, and Affleck is able to convey a surprising amount despite the handicap. I would have liked to see more of the relationship between C and M to understand why it was special, but perhaps that was not the point of the film. We know it was special because the two protagonists linger for so long in this space, grappling with pain and denial and grief, and that is the story that matters most, as the slow pace of the film makes clear. 

A Ghost Story touches on a lot of broad concepts — life after death, the impermanence of being, Heaven — but comes to no real conclusions. Still, it is creative in its method, effective in what it forces us to consider, and well thought-out in the approach its actors take. Watching the film is a bit like reading Vonnegut or Steinbeck: we experience a specific moment in time, a single story in detail, and are then forced to consider its place in the broader scheme of the narrative. Discomfiting though our tiny lives may seem, stories like these are also reassuring in that we see how our own existences matter too because they are vast to those of us that live through them.

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