Somehow sharp and gentle all at once, A Ghost Story uses recognizable actors, simple images and a story of loss to make us think deeply about life, death and letting go. As neither horror flick nor afterlife introspective, this artful tale won't have mass appeal, but for its poignancy it earns 4 out of 5.
A young couple living in a sleepy suburban house is slowly packing up their belongings in preparation to move when tragedy strikes. After Rooney Mara's character (never named, listed only as "M" in the credits) finds Casey Affleck's character ("C") dead in a car accident just a stone’s throw from their home, both of their existences take a sharp turn.
The narrative follows C (as a white-sheeted ghost) as he makes his way from the hospital morgue back to his former home with M, and struggles to make sense of her grief, their relationship, their home, and what it takes to find peace.
If viewed with patience, this movie is a sublime treat. What seems to be a slow, even sleepy, style, is revealed to be a stylized but brutally realistic look at life, humans, and the very real struggles we face. Mara oozes emotional honesty through every shot, endearing empathy and connection. Affleck - under his ghost sheet - is alternatingly puzzling and heartbreaking, scary and funny. And writer/director David Lowery does a fine job interjecting light moments that break up a largely quiet and thoughtful film.
The film's aesthetics must also be mentioned. With an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the shape of the screen itself hearkens to an era of silent films or polaroids - which amp up the elements of nostalgia, sentimentality, and memory. Perhaps the most striking piece of camerawork is the director's choice to have fixed shots (with no camera movement) and very long takes. So often in films, the editing flits us in supersonic speed from one scene to the next, leaving us no time to sit with a feeling or a mood. But these long takes allow us to see what happens to these characters in the "after moments" - in transitions, in stillness. It's an eerie reminder of what real life is like. In fact, during certain moments you may feel as if you're peering into someone's real life!
A Ghost Story is decidedly not for everyone. Its slowness, sparse dialogue and picture-book-quality protagonist are of a certain taste. If it's not to your taste, you're likely to feel bored, confused or antsy.
But for those with even more offbeat taste, it's worth noting that A Ghost Story is just that: a bit ghostlike. It's not full of robust words, groundbreaking cinematic tricks, or the mettle of the classics you watch in film school. It's an idea, a mood, a feeling - and one that might leave some with dark or uncomfortable thoughts.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
It's crucial to remember that this movie is not about the afterlife - even though its protagonist is a ghost. The writers are not seeking to present theology or even philosophy as it relates to heaven, hell, or what happens to us when we die. Rather, the story prods us to ask ourselves questions about life. Why do we create, build, dream, and work? Is it for ourselves? Others? For a legacy; in the hope that we will be remembered through the ages? Echoes of the book of Ecclesiastes ring out in one scene when a character exclaims, "You will write a book... but the pages will [eventually] burn." What would it look like to let go, to give up control (to the universe, to God, to the future, etc.) and live each moment in present fullness?
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: R for brief language and a disturbing image
- Language/Profanity: Two uses of the F-word (once in a song) and one sh*t.
- Sexuality/Nudity: A couple is shown kissing and cuddling in bed (they are both shirtless but she remains covered by the sheet). During a party various couples are briefly seen kissing and canoodling. A woman takes a shower but we only see her shoulders up.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: A man’s dead body is seen twice from the shoulders up (nothing gory or graphic). Some eerie things happen inside a house (lights flickering, mysterious sounds). Some suspenseful moments. A pioneer family is shown peppered with arrows (a Native American massacre, presumably) and a few further images show their decomposing skeletons as time progresses. A man leaps from a very tall building.
Drugs/Alcohol: During a party people drink beer.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Movie nerds who appreciate fixed camera scenes, like those found in Rope or The Third Man. Those who find delight when movies surprise them, even in small ways. Folks following the career trajectory of David Lowery (Pete's Dragon, Ain't Them Bodies Saints). Fans of quiet, more thoughtful indie films. Those who love to dive into great soundtracks (this one by Daniel Hart). Those willing to consider the point of life in a movie theater.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Kids. Those who don't have a keen fascination in film as art. Those with short or wandering attention spans, or who are looking for a biblical representation of the afterlife. People who prefer film to be a lighter, more escapist form of entertainment.
A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery, opened in limited theaters July 7, 2017, wider July 14; available for home viewing October 3, 2017. It runs 87 minutes and stars Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Will Oldham. Watch the trailer for A Ghost Story here.
Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.
Publication date: July 10, 2017
Image courtesy: ©A24