When considering David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, there’s a good chance someone brought up mainly on mainstream Hollywood cinema will not have the patience for it and will desperately start staring at the theater exit and checking the time on their cellphones within the first half-hour thinking “fuck… I should’ve just watched War for the Planet of the Apes again.”
The reason I say this is because that was precisely my reaction during the first half hour of this movie. Yes, me. The person who considers both Lav Diaz and Bela Tarr, two of cinema’s directors notorious for the length and ‘slowness’ of their cinema, to be among the best storytellers film history has to offer. I sat through Tarr’s 6-hour long Satantango, a film which is comprised of merely 100 or so shots each with minimal dialogue and completely in black and white, as well as Diaz’s 7.5 hour long From What is Before, similar in style and composition to Tarr’s film and neither of them seemed even close to as long or frustrating as the first half of A Ghost Story.
So what exactly happened here?
The film revolves around the death of a significant other. Two people, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are in a loving but emotionally rocky relationship in a house which C is very attached to. After C dies in a tragic car crash he becomes a ghost and starts to wander around the house, mute and unable to physically interact with the mortal world, while M greives in increasingly depressing silence. Lowery films all of this with comatose static shots which linger for lengthy intervals with minimal dialogue and sound. Some of them are effective, such as the sequences of M packing up her life and finally moving out of the house that C loved so much, while others are unintentionally funny in their preposterousness.
One of the most silliest moments in the film is a sequence in which M sees a pie that her neighbor left her as a “sorry for you loss” condelence and then out of a fit of silent rage, begins to consume the entire pie. This event occurs in the frame of a single static shot with M crouched on the kitchen floor stabbing at the pie repeatedly with her fork, stuffing large chunks into her mouth and chewing with a lot of jaw-aching effort. It goes on for so long and with such a mechanical monotony that I could feel everyone else in the theater telecommunicating with me, the same exact message: “Are we really going to be sitting here watching this girl binge eat an entire fucking pie?!?”(She ends up stopping four bites shy and vomits it all out in the toilet across the hall)
What augments the utter banality of the film’s first half is that Lowery’s deliberately slow style here is completely let down by the setting he’s working with. Unlike similarly quiet and paced films such as Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher, Lowery is restricted to the interiors of a rather unremarkable house and its even less remarkable surroundings. The communal farm in Satantango had such a heavy air of depravity that every scene, even if it lasted for long durations and shot in black and white, was rife with detail and texture and a sense of doom. Foxcatcher had the benefit of the DuPont estate being remarkably picturesque as well as haunting in its stillness, beautifully complimenting the deliberate pace of Miller’s style. A Ghost Story takes place in the suburban neighborhood in a house that has almost nothing going for it in its current state post-C’s death.
Luckily, the house doesn’t stay this way, as M eventually moves. Before she does however, she sticks an anonymous note in the cracks of the wall of the house. Lowery plants this seed to keep tying us, and C’s Ghost, back to the relationship he was tragically ripped from. It is gimmicky, but it’s the first hint of intrigue in a rather painfully bad start.
The second half thankfully moves a lot faster, but it doesn’t get that much more interesting.
As we enter the post-M era of C’s Ghost’s time floating around the house, the film departs from physical reactions of loss and death, into a much more philosophical territory… for better and worse. The changes in tenants, buildings, and landscape of the property elicits a rapid passage of time that leaves C’s Ghost further battered and lost in the memory of the house he has now become a part of. The several instances where C’s Ghost scratches the wall to retrieve the anonymous note remains really the only thing that keeps us caring for his character. There is some serious emotional heft in these scenes and the best parts of the film are those which ties us back to C and M’s relationships, the good and the dysfunctional. Everything else, remains childish.
Another giggle-worthy event is when C’s Ghost peeks at another ghost in a neighboring house and having a vague conversation about “waiting for something”. Is… comic relief? Is Lowery doing this to poke fun, give us a breather from the ghosts and loss, and love? Or is this guy being straight-faced and actually believes this to be good philosophical storytelling?
Perhaps the best description of A Ghost Story’s attempt at profundity is the scene when a group of 20-somethings occupy the house and throw a party. In the kitchen, four of them have gathered around, a bit buzzed, talking lightly about the meaning of “life”. One of them, a bearded hipster one would wager, goes on an incredibly verbose pseudo-intellectual rant which aims to make so many badly concieved points, that it makes none. The critic blurb I see most often connected to this movie describes it as “cosmic”, but its journey to discern our ideas of memory, death, and time sputter out before getting off the ground.