Review: A Ghost Story

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With a title like A Ghost Story, one might surmise that such a film carries all the traditional spooky trappings of genre. However, this film’s interests are much more explicitly metaphysical, while also occasionally nodding to the familiar elements of an apparition filled narrative. Indeed, the polarities between our physical lives and the undetermined trajectories of the afterlife are at the core of director David Lowery’s film. While some of its conclusions are more concrete to fit a storytelling need, A Ghost Story is less an actual story, and more a meditative poem about both the importance and futility of leaving behind a legacy.

The central couple of A Ghost Story are simply named C (Casey Affleck), and M (Rooney Mara), both living together, but preparing for a move. One night, they hear a thud on the piano, the source of which is unknown. The following morning, C is killed in a car accident. M identifies him at a morgue, covers his face and leaves. Moments later, C arises suddenly, his afterlife begun. In a clever low budget approach, C’s ghost is depicted as if in a children’s fairy tale: a white sheet with two black eyes. His consciousness freed from Earthly shackles, C ventures out to the into world, but only has one destination. He returns home, observing M as she grapples with his loss and, in time, moves on. C bears witness to future tenants of the house he once lived in, from a new family, to a bunch of twentysomethings partying, and even the house’s eventual destruction, making way for a new city untold centuries into the future. All the while, C travels through time freely, but remains in the same spot, seeking to reconnect with M in some capacity.

A Ghost Story owes its existence from expressionistic and European arthouse cinema more than anything American, yet its themes remain universal and timeless. The 1.33 :1 aspect ratio lends a storybook quality to the film, and the protracted first half underlines M’s grief as much as C’s invisible presence. Long takes dominate, whether it’s the couple falling asleep together, or M’s consuming a whole pie as her emotions overwhelm her. At times Lowery lays his thesis too straightforward, especially when a partygoer philosophizes about the impossibility of maintaining an individual legacy due to the ultimate fate of the universe. It’s a verbose scene that stands in stark contrast from the otherwise dialogue light film. However, there are more successful passages, such as the parallel editing between M and C, as he introduces her to a new song he’s composed, and later, as she listens to it in the aftermath of his passing. Far deeper into the film, the song reappears, but in a context both surprising and appropriately mysterious.

C’s journey through the afterlife bears many of the same hallmarks as other ghostly narratives. As with other ghosts, he haunts his home, looking for some kind of catharsis or resolution, but our empathy for him derives from his point of view. Granted, we aren’t afforded any clues as to his emotional state after death, or whether he has any emotions to spare. This is where one of the oldest editorial concepts comes into play brilliantly, for C is a case study in the Kuleshov effect. By cutting between an expressionless character (such as C’s ghost), and whatever that character sees, the audience is able to project upon the character their own thoughts and feelings. Thus C’s experience a unifying one, for death is a certainty to all, and ultimately embracing that fate is our only common destiny.

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~ by romancinema on July 24, 2017.

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