For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Fantasy Movies of the 21st Century, here’s a review of A Ghost Story (2017) by James of Blogging By Cinemalight.
Thanks again to Alan Sanders of the Wilder Ride for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by me and we will be reviewing our favorite Family Vacation Films
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Aug by sending them to Familyvacation@movierob.net
Try to think out of the box!
Let’s see what James thought of this movie:
A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017) One of the new breed of directors that I go out of my way to watch is David Lowery. The first film I saw of his, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was a subtle variation of Bonnie and Clyde with a streak of altruism running through its cynicism. Then, of all things, he took on a live version of a Disney movie—one of its worst, Pete’s Dragon—and turned a torturous musical into a simple, song-less Shaggy Dragon story with a genuine sense of wonder. A Ghost Story came next, but like a phantasm, disappeared quickly from theaters—*poof* Next up was The Old Man and the Gun, a story almost too good to be true—except it mostly was—and showed that Lowery was easing off the pictorial precision and giving his performers room to breathe without making them look like they were in an art painting. The constraints—like the performers—were relaxed and no less satisfying for it.
But, A Ghost Story. What of that?
A recent viewing on Netflix shows it to be the simplest of tales, but what Lowery does with it—with one painterly eye and the other winking—makes for one of those movies you want to discuss after its un-spooled and is flapping against the projector…and you’re still in your seat (while the theater clean-up crew give you a wary glance).
Nobody has any names in the movie—the two main folks are C (played by Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a married couple, slightly fracturing, but still together and still in love with each other. He’s a musician when he’s not doing other things and she’s doing other things. They are childless and one would say rootless, except that one of their areas of contention is that she wants to move and he doesn’t. In the opening, there are unexplained things that happen in the house—the piano makes a thump in the middle of the night and a wary nighttime exploration reveals nothing. The house is subject to areas of shimmering color that have no seeable origin.
Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. But, so does death. C is killed in an auto accident on the street outside their house. M goes to the hospital to identify the body, and does so. She leaves.
Long pause on the same angle of the shot of the body on the examination table. Very long pause. And the sheet on the slab sits up. Looks around. The next shot is of a hospital wall with a sink prominent, center-stage, and we see the reflection of the sheet-swathed C approaching screen-right before we see the “real” thing crossing our field of vision.
The “real” thing is a figure in a head-to-floor sheet with cut-out eyes, like a child’s home-made Hallowe’en ghost costume. Maybe it’s a cost-cutting move to present the main character, appearing in virtually (spiritually?) the entire movie, as a practical costume rather than creating a feature-length digital effect. But, the effect is so simple, so cheery, and so…eerie (especially as Lowery presents it) that one warms to the conceit and “just goes with it,” as opposed to grousing about a “cheap effect”—especially when it’s Affleck giving the physical performance under the sheet.
C’s ghost, wandering around the hospital, has an opportunity to “go to the light”—in a sequence that has the same animated feel of the time-portal appearances in Time Bandits—but does not. Instead, he goes home, back to the house he shared with M, observing the few comings and goings passively, even when the is the threat—from his point of view—of her becoming involved with another man. This isn’t A Guy Named Joe (or Spielberg’s version Always) or even Ghost. C merely watches and doesn’t (or can’t) interact with the living, at least, not yet (there will be a time when he is responsible for some poltergeist activity later in the film). He is rooted in one spot and, by his own choice, remains there, even after M has packed off and left, leaving an embedded note in the house’s drywall that, once he’s able to manifest himself enough to interact with the “real” world, he tries to retrieve. It will take years.
Until another family moves into the house—one of a few—his only contact is another ghost, inhabiting the house next door and who waves from one of its windows. Their communication, rather wittily supplied in sub-titles, concerns the basics (“Hi.” “Hello.” “I’m waiting for someone.” “Who are you waiting for?” “I don’t know.”) It is only once the houses are abandoned and razed, does the other ghost say “I don’t think they’re coming” and disappears, without another word.
But, C stays, never venturing from the spot where the foundation existed. Even after the suburb has become overtaken with urban development, he remains, finally inhabiting the office building that has risen up in the house’s place. And it’s here that the film starts to become a bit phantasmagorical as C’s “stay-in-place” journey becomes more identifiable as one of time and not place.
I eat this kind of movie like a fine continental breakfast, the kind of film that tells its story through image more than dialogue. Mostly silent—there is a wonderfully mordant score by Daniel Hart—the film plays out like the “Zarathustrian apartment” sequence towards the end of 2001: a Space Odyssey; things happen and it’s the viewer’s job to keep up with the changes without a narrative hand-holding strategem. One should keep in mind that literal-mindedness may not be an asset—the film is dealing with the after-life, after all, and rules don’t necessarily apply in that dimension. It is a journey, but it’,s not one anybody alive enough to watch the film could be able to argue with.
Shot in the claustrophobic aspect ratio of 1.33:1—the old “Academy” ratio, that was jettisoned when wide-screen started to be introduced—A Ghost Story is a simple story, well-told, beautiful to look at, and leaves one pondering what one has just seen and marveling at how such a thing has come to be.
It has an amazing after-life.