IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Struggling musician C is killed in a car accident. At the morgue, he awakens as a ghost covered in a white sheet with two black holes for eyes. Wandering aimlessly through the hospital, no one else seems able to see him. After staring at a doorway full of bright light, he returns home and sees his wife M grieve over her loss. He continues watching over her for days and weeks on end that appear like seconds to him. Then he sees another ghost inside the house beside his….
Despite its title, A Ghost Story isn’t really a horror movie – or at least that’s one of the things I was thinking as the film was unfolding in front of me. But as I begin to write this review, I’m wondering if maybe it is, because it deals with some ideas that are not just sad but downright horrifying if you think about it. Imagine dying and then being stuck watching your loved one grieve and then move on and being totally unable to interact with them? Is there a crueller premise for a film? Horror can mean many things. For the last couple of weeks I did wonder why a film with the title A Ghost Story starring – well, Casey Affleck may not be a household name but I’m sure that most filmgoers even of a casual nature know who Rooney Mara is – seemed to have such a limited theatrical release. Horror movies seem to be going through an especially popular phase at the moment. But even just a couple of minutes into A Ghost Story and it will become apparent that this is a film very much of the ‘arty’ kind and may very well disappoint, confuse or even bore those who may decide to go and see it thinking it might even vaguely resemble something like Annabelle: Creation. While surprise can be a wonderful thing, it’s probably not wise to go into this film without some idea of what you’re going to get. However, if you’re open to seeing something very different from what we tend to call a ghost story, the rewards are many.
Drawing more than anything else on our desire to be remembered long after we have left this world, and in part a look at grief allegorising the anxiety that comes from contemplating the end of consciousness, A Ghost Story cannot be called a happy watch, and it really does deal with some things some of us probably try not to think about. But at the very least it’s pretty original. The idea of the main protagonist or protagonists in a film being actually dead tends to be mostly relegated to a twist ending [i.e. The Sixth Sense, The Others]. Okay there’s 1990’s Ghost, but imagine if that film had been written and directed by someone like Andrei Tarkovsky and you may get an idea of how ‘different’ this movie is. Despite only running slightly over an hour and a half, it’s very slow paced at times, the camera often fixing on something for ages. I would imagine that the most divisive moment, one that may very well send some people out of the cinema, is when M consumes most of a pie in a single take. I can see it driving some viewers mad, yet isn’t it also possible to see the sad beauty in the scene, to really feel the emotion of somebody who’s suffered their partner’s death desperately trying to take some pleasure from something – not to mention the poor ghost that’s in the corner of the scene, watching impotently.
We start with C and M seemingly very happy together, then hearing a loud bang in the middle of the night, something which I suppose may lead some viewers to think they’re watching a reasonably conventional spook show. Something that may take some getting used to is that the whole film is shot in the academy ratio format, and with rounded corners, though it soon gives us the vague idea that we’re watching really old home movies, or memories that are just a bit starting to fade. Affleck and Mara, who were also in director David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints [though not actually together much in it], are so good that we get a sense of their love for each other, yet also just a tiny bit of uneasiness, over just a few minutes. Are there many who would now argue that Rooney isn’t one of the best actresses of her generation? And isn’t Affleck infinitely times better than his brother? Anyway, suddenly we cut to the very end of a car crash, an event we never see properly though I fully expected that we would, one of several occasions when this movie does the unexpected. For what seems like an eternity we observe, from a distance, the sheet-covered body of C in the hospital. When it sits up, then gets up and moves around the hospital, we are not frightened, yet immediately get an idea of how C may feel like. The bright light forming in a doorway was perhaps unneccessary. A bit too obvious. But even now, the device of having C constantly inhabit the sheet, with holes where his eyes are, isn’t anywhere near as limiting as one might think, and soon simple things like C slightly moving his shoulder actually say a great deal.
C seems stuck inside one or two rooms of the house, as if he’s trapped in the denial state of grief. He initially seems doomed to watch M’s pain, but when three shots of M leaving the house wearing differing clothing are quickly cut together it seems that he can move forward quickly in time, though at varying paces. I couldn’t help but think of Tilda Swinton’s Orlando, though at least she/he was alive. C sees M bring home another man, and we feel C’s pain so much even though we can’t see the expressions on his face, if indeed a face he actually has. Then, in a moment which achieves the difficult task of being incredibly sad but actually rather happy – at least for one character – at the same time, M leaves the house for another life. But C remains rooted in the same place, and as time moves forward has to put up with new tenants in the house, and then the house being demolished altogether. And what about the ghost in the house opposite? The scenes of the two communicating may strike some as being slightly mawkish, but for me seemed to work as ever-so-slightly light relief in a mostly dour and increasingly mind-bendy piece which contains slight elements of Primer and Interstellar as it proceeds to what seemed to me a surprisingly logical conclusion despite it leaving many questions.
Certain familiar concepts, such as children being able to see ghosts that adults can’t, are employed, though usually with a twist. Of course there’s a hell of a lot that isn’t explained, but then wouldn’t explanations come across as rather inadequate? The heart of the film is a lengthy monologue by a party guest about humanity’s doomed attempts to leave traces that last, especially through art. It seems to suggest that a song C writes for M will outlast him, though we have no evidence of this. There’s a slight element of toughness that holds any sentimentality at bay. Cuts showing the decay of a body remind us of what C now really probably looks like. Some flashbacks seem to tell us, without dwelling on the issue, that C and M’s relationship wasn’t anywhere near as hunkydory as C liked to remember it. This reminds us that we have a tendency to rely on rose-tinted memories as things to hold on to, yet they can also prevent us from seeing reality and perhaps even hold us back from moving on. As somebody who is still going through grief himself, I didn’t find all of what this film seems to be telling me palatable, but it did seem to contain much honesty about it despite the science fiction trappings.
Daniel Hart’s score, sometimes eerie, sometimes melancholy, very occasionally actually happy, is allowed to play a major part in the effect of the film in places, but there are also many times when silence plays a major part. At times A Ghost Story seems limited by the confines it has set for itself. There are times when it appears to be reaching for drama which doesn’t really materialise. Sometimes its cuts forward in time fustrate. But it’s still quite an impressive achievement for Lowery who basically seems to have directed Pete’s Dragon so he could make this movie, yet still managed to make it one of the best remakes in recent years even if A Ghost Story was what he was really interested in making. I have the feeling that the act of watching this film may have the possibly bad effect [at least for someone who likes scary movies] of making one less frightened the next time one see ghosts on the screen. Instead of quaking in your boots, you might very well instead be wondering about the action from the point of view of the ghost. What is it thinking? Does it mean to really scare? Perhaps the ghost has far more of a right to be frightened than any of the living folk in the movie? In any case, though its ghost isn’t a figure of fear, A Ghost Story is one of the most truly haunting films I’ve seen in ages.