A Ghost Story (2017 USA)
A Ghost Story is one of the best movies I’ve seen in the theater this year. At times, it is a story about a ghost, a house, a piece of land and the loss of all, and it is an expression of quiet meditation.
Be warned: it is extremely depressing (well, I found it to be), is even slower than it is depressing and goes for large chunks with no dialogue. Writer-director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon etc) often lingers his physically static shots for long after the action seems to be complete, an affect I at first found annoying but grew to appreciate. It evolves from grating to strangely …. effective.
The very early action regards a married couple played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. They lay on the couch and talk, then go to bed. We see a bit of the ebb and flow of their life in the house, clearly a “starter house” – 2 beds and a bathroom, not particularly nice but not junky. It has a piano and like much of the house and what’s in it, its relevance isn’t explained until much later.
The trailers (to say nothing of the name) give away that one of these people is obviously going to die (the film’s literature and trailers give away the ‘who’, but I will not). One night they are asleep and something bangs on the piano, and at this point I was waiting for a grisly murder. Instead … nothing.
An ongoing argument between them is alluded to in the sparse dialogue, but like much of the film the viewer is required to exert a deep patience. The few payoffs are sharp, but if you’re buying what the movie is selling, the payoffs are an afterthought – Lowery creates a mood that within the context of the film that is an odd transmutation of time itself.
That is the hook of the film – without ever saying it, the ghost has come back to watch over its still-alive love, but ghost time is presumably eternal, whereas human time is limited. So at first the days drag as the ghost watches the survivor mourn, then time starts speeding up and then, suddenly, it circles back on itself approximately 150 years, and starts moving again. The ghost becomes unmoored from time, which translated in human thought is as existentially horrific as I could personally imagine. Unlike other sad, depressing contemplations of time and humanity (The Vanishing, with its unforgettable finale, or even the concept played out in Open Water, where a married couple come up from a dive in the middle of the ocean and realize that they’ve been left and that they will both be dead in a few hours) A Ghost Story presents a scenario where a being that has some bit of consciousness is now stuck in time, unseen and rarely even felt.
After the survivor leaves, the ghost can’t. It’s stuck there. A new family moves in and time again starts moving faster, and the ghost takes its exasperation out on the family, who moves out. It becomes a home to twentysomething hipster-types, and the film’s intended high point is a long, drunken sermon delivered by one of the hipsters regarding time, space, humanity and doom, a lively-delivered musing on pessimism that for a moment has the house party at a stop. I didn’t like this moment and found it off-tone, a loud obnoxious rant delivered by a loud obnoxious person, but it will appeal to many viewers who aren’t themselves having an existential crisis (I’ve been having one for about two years and it only gets worse).
When I was coming of age and Indie cinema was a thing, there was often a certain amazement at how much certain movies cost to me – El Mariachi was supposedly made for $8,000, Slacker for $23,000, even Reservoir Dogs and its all-star cast was only $1.2m. Those days and fascinations are long over (2015’s Tangerine, shot on an iPhone in L.A., cost $100,000) – yet A Ghost Story, shot on an Arri Alexa Mini using high speed lenses, was shot for $100,000, the assumption being that Mara and Affleck worked for points or for free, since Affleck has an Oscar and Mara’s been nominated twice.
The film was shot in Irving, Texas and by my count uses fewer than 10 sets, and all of those except for the house itself are employed only once. It is a kind of time-bending cinematic minimalism done expertly. The (relatively) infamous scene of Rooney Mara scarfing down a pumpkin pie was done in one unbroken take – Mara had reportedly never eaten pie before, so there’s that.
Mara is not the best actress of her generation, but she is my favorite and it ain’t even close. If she’d been born a hundred years earlier, she would be a star every bit as big as Lilian Gish – her face is cherubically beautiful and as an actress she tends to be extremely subtle without resorting the gimmick of being deadpan. Affleck doesn’t do a great deal, but his inability to properly express why he likes the house just as Mara’s character wants to move imbues part of the depression that hovers over the film from its first note to its last.