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A GHOST STORY (2017)
Movie Review by Dan Keohane
What is it like to be a ghost? If ghosts are real, and they haunt homes, what do they do with themselves in between knocking items off the shelf? Not much, if writer/director David Lowry’s A GHOST STORY (2017) is any indication. They simply exist, observe and now and then try to interact with the living. A GHOST STORY is an artistic endeavor—I hesitate to use the term “horror movie,” because scaring or disturbing the viewer seems far from Lowry’s goal. The movie beautifully and patiently portrays one possible answer to the question above, seen through the large black eyes of the ghost of a man known only as “C” (no names are given). A GHOST STORY is an introverted film, but one that knows the questions it wishes to answer. Nothing happens quickly and very little dialogue is spoken, though there are a few moments of action, even a couple of frights (not for the viewer, but for the characters themselves). Because of this, as I tend to say when reviewing left-of-center films such as this, A GHOST STORY will not appeal to everyone. This is light years from the typical “ghost story” one might expect. It is, however, the story of a ghost, and what “life” becomes for him when he leaves his mortal coil.
In the beginning of the film, after a slow, pace-setting pan from cinematographer (and relative newcomer) Andrew Droz Palermo of wide open fields, silent dirt roads, and the small cluster of homes of a rough development situated near a crossroads, we close in on a simple, single-story prefab. It’s clean, size-wise only a step above a trailer home. Here, young husband “C” (played by Casey Affleck – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, 2016, and GONE, BABY, GONE, 2007 with his usual quiet introspection) and wife “M” (Rooney Mara – THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, 2011; CAROL, 2015) live a quiet, but happy, life together. M wants to move, find someplace less isolated and a little bigger. Her husband, however, feels a connection to this small house, content to stay. An argument ensues, and eventually, C relents because his wife is more important. He agrees to move. (They do not actually call themselves M and C; no names are used so the screenwriter had to use something for the script to be readable – I assume C = Casey and M = Mara.)
That night, outside their bedroom, there’s a strange sound, something falling then crashing piano keys. When they investigate, nothing is found. C and M go back to bed. Not long after, C dies (yeah, it was as sudden as that) and M is a widow. But this is only the beginning of C’s story
That’s the setup. Other major points can be covered in context of what makes A GHOST STORY unique. These opening scenes are not thrown at you quickly, but carried across the screen methodically, a Sunday-afternoon-staying-in-and-doing-the-crossword kind of slow. Director Lowry (PETE’S DRAGON, 2016; AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, 2013) takes time to show the viewer that these two young people are deeply in love (at least, the husband is deeply in love with his wife). Lowry shows us, not tells us. If you base their relationship on what they actually say to each other, you’d assume this couple is one broken dish from a divorce. They are strong-willed individuals who bicker often. How the director shows us what’s beneath all this is the key to what worked so well in the film—though, really, none of this should have worked. It could just be I like this kind of movie, or was prepared for it, having seen a trailer which left no question this was not your average haunted house story.
What you are watching is a painting formed one deliberate brushstroke at a time, with many pauses and stares at the canvas. If you’re one who enjoys looking at beautiful lawns, but not the process of the grass actually growing, this might not be your cup of tea. A good comparison, pace-wise, might be the German film WINGS OF DESIRE (1987).
The early scenes are accompanied by very little, if any, score, and often are one continuous shot. In the above scene of the crashing piano keys, their investigation is shot from the bedroom doorway as C looks room-to-room, finding nothing. When they climb back into bed, the viewer is brought deep into the true nature of their relationship. And no, it’s not a sex scene. It’s far more intimate. Here again is another long shot, with C and M laying in bed, kissing slowly in their sleepiness. It really is a beautiful, authentic moment showing how intimately close these two are, how they make up from their earlier argument by practically merging into one body, all of it by kissing softly, nothing more, and eventually falling to sleep. Where other directors would frame the edit to about ten seconds, here it’s easily a minute or two, establishing how strong an attachment C has with M. This comes into play after he dies two scenes later.
Before that, M does something critical to the story. Knowing they are going to be moving out, she writes a note and pushes it into a space between the wall and door jamb, an old tradition for someone to discover in the future. C isn’t allowed to read it. In the next scene, the camera pans across the neighborhood, stopping, eventually, on a car accident. How it happened in the middle of nowhere, a mere hundred feet from their driveway is never explained. The car is steaming, hood bent—did he hit a pole or concrete mailbox? Doesn’t matter. The next scene reveals M at the morgue, staring down in silence at the sheet-covered body of her dead husband and saying her silent goodbyes.
After she leaves, the shot continues. A sheet-covered body on a table. Maybe a minute with nothing happening, long enough to start getting uncomfortable but enough not to be surprised when C’s body suddenly rises up under the sheet—a sheet which never leaves him from that moment on because, now, he is a ghost. This is shown with the stereotypical imagery (but to my knowledge, never done in a serious film) of a sheet with two large black eye holes, through which you cannot see C’s face but, one assumes, Affleck can since he moves around without bumping into walls.
His motion within the sheet is beautiful in how it moves—not sure if this was a happy accident or they aimed to make the sheet a natural extension of C’s ghost—in fact, his entire body. The sheet must have been fitted to his head and wrists in such a way that it flows gracefully with his movements. When he actually moves, that is.
On entering the hallway outside the morgue, C’s ghost approaches a doorway filled with a blinding light, implying his entrance to an eternity beyond. Like Patrick Swayze’s character in GHOST (1990), something pulls at him to stay in the land of the living. He walks away, eventually leaving the hospital and heading towards home. His walk home is a gloriously beautiful scene, and one where the score by Daniel Hart (PETE’S DRAGON, 2016; SMLF, 2017) shines. The music is ethereal and minimalistic. As if seeing into a world beyond our own requires such accompaniment.
Lowry (who directs, writes and edits) couldn’t care less how what you think of this film’s slow pace, only how you feel—he is creating mood and emotion through images. He does this extremely well. Initially, once this phase of the story begins, it might be jarring to what lengths he will go, even after everything one has already seen. When M returns from the funeral (she is dressed differently from the hospital, more formally), she finds a pie and slumps to the floor to eat it out of the pan. No need for niceties now that she is living alone. In the corner of the room the shrouded, nearly motionless form of C’s ghost watches as she eats. And eats. The shot does not end until the entire pie is gone. I wondered if this was unplanned, and to be honest it was borderline annoying how much time was spent on this one scene—for here, initially, was born a conundrum in my mind: was there really nothing else in this plot worth showing that the director kept an entire pie being consumed from landing on the editing room floor? I stayed with it, though, and was rewarded, but this is again another example of the film’s pace. And no, no music while she eats. Silence, only the clinking of the fork on the pie plate. With this scene and others like it, the silent, isolated world of C’s ghost (and, for the time, being his widow) pours over you. He stares with longing at her whenever she is home (though you cannot see his face to know this, but there are subtle shifts in how the eyes are positioned to imply emotion—very, very subtle, but it worked for me).
M eventually comes to terms with what happened, begins dating and moves out. Leaving C’s ghost alone in the house. He does not follow—one assumes he might not be able to. The rest of the movie is C’s ghost standing around, returning to their old bedroom, trying to touch things. He is able to move objects if he focuses enough, but, for the most part, he leaves things as they are, watching in silence from different areas of different rooms as people come and go throughout the life of the house.
One striking moment in this latter half happens when C spies another ghost standing in the window of the house next door, staring back at him. Through gestures and subtitles, the other ghost tells him that she (for some reason I labeled this one female in my brain) is waiting for someone. C asks whom. The other pauses, then says, “I can’t remember.” This does not bode well for C, and we see this—somehow—in how he reacts. He becomes very worried about forgetting M over time. I think.
The second half of this film is not silence and celestial music, however, because other people and families move into the home, unaware that is it haunted by a rather saturnine spirit. There are moments when C becomes agitated and causes scenes more in line with haunted house tales. These add enough action to keep us going. At this point, if one is still watching as I was, then one is committed, and will be rewarded in the end (if not a little messed up in the head). During this era after M has left, C remembers the note she stuck in the wall and spends most of his days, and years, digging at the door frame to retrieve it, this final vestige of his lost wife. His sheet-adorned fingers are to clumsy, his physical connection to the world too weak to manage more than a few scrapes. But he keeps trying throughout the extended years of his isolation.
I won’t get into more because, if you haven’t been messed with visually and mentally by this point, you will be in the last third of the film. To this point, I kept wondering how in the world Lowry was going to tie all of this back to the haunted incident with the piano at the beginning of the film, since events are moving forward decades beyond that moment. But he does, and though I will not try to understand it one hundred percent, I really liked what he did, weird as it was. It brought everything around to a fascinating, heart-wrenching (or heart–warming, depending on how you decide to take it) ending. Don’t try to guess from that last sentence what happens, and no, it’s not a “happy” ending, it’s simply the completion of the story of C’s ghost.
By the time A GHOST STORY ends, you have been in this world long enough that everything that happens seems wondrously normal. The unexpected, becoming expected, is welcome sensation in cinema.
This film is a ghost story, a haunted house story, and a love story, but done with the brush of an artist who offers one take on the world of a deceased man who merely wants to not be alone, who had not found his true purpose in the world of the living before being torn from it—or perhaps has found his true purpose and tries to live an eternity doing just that, which of course, is not possible when that purpose revolves around a human woman.
I liked this film, as you can tell, and consider it one of my Top 10 of 2017. As I’ve said in other reviews for this kind of movie, your mileage may vary. A GHOST STORY is not to everyone’s taste. It’s slow, methodical, with a simple and sad theme, but is also beautiful and breathtaking thanks to Palermo’s cinematography (even in scenes where he locks the running camera in place for ten minutes while he goes to the bathroom). Affleck and Mara’s performances are simple but powerful, working together with Lowry’s patient eye and Hart’s score to create this gem of a film few people have heard about.
I give it three and a half knives.
© Copyright 2018 by Daniel G. Keohane