By Tony Inglis
When details of the concept of A Ghost Story, the new film from director David Lowery, broke, it may have been difficult to get past the central idea of Casey Affleck’s character marauding around the living world as a spirit, manifested not by sophisticatedly realised CGI, but by the simple Halloween trick of a man under a white sheet with two holes cut for eyes.
Described in such a way, it seems, at best, nauseatingly twee and, at worst, insufferable. The truth is, A Ghost Story is a sad and strange film filled with melancholy and longing, the tone of which allows you to accept Affleck acting beneath a cover completely and not as a joke or gimmick.
Though the plot of the film eventually becomes abstract, both temporally and narratively, initially we are introduced to the central couple (played by Affleck and Rooney Mara). They seem content in their relationship though there is tension bubbling as a move away from their rickety old country home approaches. On the day of the move, Affleck’s character is killed in a car crash and, in a seamlessly executed scene, he sits up under his mortuary sheet and is thereafter confined to the house he never wanted to leave but he had been resigned to abandoning.
The story then observes Affleck’s ghost stand witness to everything that is, will be and ever was in this spot. He watches as Mara lives with and overcomes her grief; he haunts future tenants; he’s there through the building’s demolition and redevelopment; he even experiences events that occurred there decades ago. All the while, he attempts to pull a miniature note left by his wife in the cracks in the walls as she left the place they once called home. It speaks to the cyclical nature of time, the importance of memory and remembrance and the ability to understand ourselves and those we leave behind, even in death.
Lowery’s movie, made using the funds he generated by helming Disney’s Pete’s Dragon remake, as well as his own money, has been lumped in with the so-called post-horror movement. But there is very little here to do with horror. There are supernatural elements – flickering lights, levitating mugs, crashing plates – but this story is far more concerned with down to earth human emotions, which Affleck’s character seems to experience and learn more about after his death. Indeed, the mopey, moody male that Affleck is prone to playing (and did so to a very moving degree in Manchester by the Sea, for which he won an Oscar) is far more sympathetic as a spectre than as a living being. Perhaps it was Lowery’s intention to highlight that. He is a musician, and one of his compositions plays a vital part in locking the story into place. But while the music is apt, I found it difficult to care about anything he did prior to his untimely demise.
This fairytale-like story, which has been very aptly compared to A Christmas Carol, is at its best in its quieter moments, when we are being asked to simply observe in this purgatorial imprisonment along with Affleck’s ghost. In a scene where Mara sits and eats a whole pie until she is sick, the camera is rooted to its position – so is Affleck and so are we. The long cuts force us to stare and absorb every ounce of grief. Like that grief – quiet, mostly internal – the film is very successful at reflecting that tone and it weighs heavy across its short running time. It was here that it moved me most and reached a kind of profundity.
Compare this to an early, overly long scene of the two mains protagonists (pre-death) consoling each other in bed after a bump in the night. The camera again sits stock still. It is intimate, but also intrusive and unnecessarily lengthy. Later, at a house party, we eavesdrop with the ghost on a conversation that tries too hard to explain the complexity of life, death and the entire existence of the universe. This was tiresome and too heavy handed compared to the film’s generally understated tone, overstepping its mark, trying too hard to be profound, when before it reached that effortlessly. The fact it seemed like a kind of centrepiece of the film caused me to lose patience momentarily, but once it abandoned this vignette and returned to the more prominent drifting feeling that Lowery had created, I settled back in.
Aspects of A Ghost Story do seem to scream “this is an experimental film!”, such as the home video like 4:3 aspect ratio employed and the long tableaux which comprise many scenes, but they do add to the existentialist theme of the film. There is a lovely, blackly comic scene, where Affleck and a neighbouring ghost silently converse with each other through windows which is at once funny and achingly sad.
A Ghost Story is not quite the masterpiece that some have heralded it, but it is an ambitious work by a rapidly developing filmmaker filled with interesting ideas and skilful flourishes that, in its best moments, was an emotional punch to the gut.