If grief is love with no place to go, then A Ghost Story is a beautiful, self-indulgent, flawed portrait of one man’s love for his wife and his home. A Ghost Story delivers plenty of haunting images, but is so slow and so pretentious, I wanted to walk out a couple of times.
The film focuses on C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), who are planning to move away from their two-bedroom house when C dies suddenly in a car accident just outside. After he dies, C comes back home as a classic, sheeted ghost and watches as M moves on with her life and then moves out. Even after M leaves, C’s ghost remains, haunting the house and its occupants for a duration of time that extends beyond (and before) the house’s own life.
Audiences hoping for a scary movie will be sorely disappointed. A Ghost Story has a couple of quick jump scares, but it is a love story, not a horror flick. Nevertheless, it takes advantage of the uncanny, a concept from Freud that is an essential element of a haunted house story. In short, the uncanny (in German unheimliche or, roughly, unhomey) is experienced when an everyday object seems unfamiliar or unsettling. The homey becomes unhomey by the presence of the ghost. In A Ghost Story, however, much of the uncanny is experienced by the ghost himself. As he stands, waiting for M and watching new occupants of the house, what was once his home becomes unfamiliar to him over the span of time. The ghost does some haunting, but he is also haunted by his own loss.
A Ghost Story expresses this complicated relationship between the ghost and the house through beautiful, lingering shots with soft, romantic lighting. That the sight of a ghost wearing a sheet has so much cultural weight and is kind of inherently creepy really creates a moody atmosphere on its own, and the cinematography works with bringing more emotional depth to the image. C was a composer and the sound design of the film beautifully plays with natural sounds, silence and mood music to create drama and emotion when there is none apparent. Through the sheet, the audience cannot see C’s face. We are instead presented a blank canvas. The sound design helps project emotions onto the ghost, giving basic empathy an assist.
Although A Ghost Story is beautiful and centered on an intriguing concept, it is also incredibly self-indulgent. I imagine it would have been better as a short film rather than a full-length feature. I started to really feel the pain of C’s century of waiting for his release. The end of the film has a bit of an emotional payoff, but it was not really worth the labor to get there.
The best example is a scene in which M eats an entire pie. The ghost stands there and watches her. We are forced to sit there and watch her. It is painful and lasts too long. It makes an emotional statement, but at the cost of the awful sounds of fork on dish, fork on teeth and chewing. Then she runs off and vomits. She’s grieving. I get it. This scene did not pack the emotional punch I think it was meant to. It was just torturous.
Then there’s a scene in which a drunk partygoer at the house gives a too-long beer-fueled speech about the nature of time and legacy and motivation, reflecting on why we attempt anything creative when the world is going to end anyway. It ties to the themes on mortality and legacy, sure, but it is pompous and not terribly interesting, even if it is true to life.
I’m not even sure how to comment on the acting in the film. There’s the pie scene and the fact that the main character is wearing a sheet. When Mara and Affleck are actually on the screen they are at their moodiest and mumbliest. It verges on self-parody sometimes. The credit for the successful parts of the film really lies on the production team behind the cinematography and sound design.
A Ghost Story has some really wonderful elements and an interesting perspective. It was so dragged down by the pretentious parts, though, that I did not enjoy the film as a whole. I rate it 2.5/5 stars.
A Ghost Story was written and directed by David Lowery. It runs 89 minutes and is rated R for language and a disturbing image.
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