A Ghost Story is grounded in grief. Writer-director David Lowery set out to make a movie using the compelling image of a sheet-ghost; like his other movies, this one is a cinematic tone poem more than it is a story. It didn’t work for me because for all its simplicity it features several moments of egregious indulgence that derail the experience. Some feelings are inexplicable not because they’re unknown but because they simply need no explanation. Grief is one of those. You can certainly capture it in images, in music, in stories, but A Ghost Story is too self-centered to connect with its audience in a genuine way.
M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck) are a young couple living in an old house in the throes of something new and wonderful. They don’t have real names or backstories or anything; they’re stand-ins for the kind of love everybody seeks but few seem to experience. Affleck’s never better than when he’s paired with Mara, and their intimacy here feels real and, appropriately, eternal in that ethereal way everything feels when you’re newly married. I can’t stress the quality of their performances enough. With glances, small kisses and subtle movements, the two express everything we need to move things along.
C dies in a car accident — and comes back as the titular Ghost, hanging around their house and watching as M cycles through her grief. She eventually moves out of the house and yet C stays, unable to leave the relative area. Time passes. Families move in, out, in, out — and on and on and on. Yet he stays, a remnant of the love he shared with M and his time living in that home.
Lowery’s eye for composition, mixed with a year’s-best score by Daniel Hart, creates evocative images. C moves through time but never much space. Both love and grief — deeply intertwined as they are — are so utterly universal that it is never lost on us why he can’t move on. Lowery doesn’t have to do much work beyond giving us something uniquely sensory on which to latch. In the best moments of A Ghost Story, he succeeds.
But there are several scenes where Lowery slows down and, in doing so, focuses on moments that don’t need the space they are allotted. One involves M’s grief as she sits on the floor of the kitchen and eats a pie for almost five minutes. The idea is that the prolonged scene contextualizes the true eternity the Ghost experiences for us, so that when the editing speeds up we still understand what he is experiencing. The nice thing about cinema is that you don’t need to be so explicit in conveying that kind of idea. M’s grief is powerful as a moment, but a moment is all it needs. The scene is downright intolerable, and not in an immersive way as intended. I don’t say this lightly, but it may be the single most embarrassing moment in a movie this year.
Taking second place in the “breaking an otherwise great movie” contest is singer-songwriter Will Oldham prognosticating about the nature of life and death (he is literally credited as Prognosticator), his drunken party ramblings a representation of our obsession with meaning something beyond our mortal lifespan (and why ultimately everything we do and try to build is meaningless because of the heat death of the universe blah blah blah).
The problem with the first scene is that it feels indulgent in the classic art film sense; the problem with the second is that it is redundant, nervous. Lowery’s film is so deeply elemental in its emotions that it didn’t need such blatant exposition, and that the scene goes on as long as it does only distracts from C’s journey. Most artsy-types were ‘that guy / girl’ at a party in their youth, and the smart ones have felt ashamed of it for most of their adult lives.
In a way, Lowery-as-writer plays the role of the Prognosticator, someone so excited to have an audience that he misses the reason why they’re paying attention. Love and grief are two emotions as universal as they are unique to the person experiencing them, but if you can create a moment in a work of art (or, I guess, a drunken rant?) that connects with their experience … well, then you have someone’s attention. But you are not the center of that attention. That connection is separate from you. All you’re doing is providing a platform and a context for empathy. You don’t need to prod it along. Connecting, empathizing, is enough — it’s what someone suffering is looking for, and what A Ghost Story offers in its best moments.
The silence between M and C is the power of A Ghost Story, when the film provides those “best moments.” Those are the moments when I thought of my wife — and maybe the moments when you might think of who or what keeps you going, too. Thinking of Aly gave C’s experiences power. No monologues necessary. No pie-eating bullshit.
I don’t think A Ghost Story is a bad film, but I think it has moments of greatness shackled with some very questionable, very self-centered narrative choices. Lowery’s previous films — Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon — both left me sort of cold, and A Ghost Story is about the same. It’s a movie designed to make you feel by a writer-director too afraid to simply let you.