MOVIE REVIEW: ‘A Ghost Story’ is pretentiously moving

It's somewhat high up on its own horse, but it doesn't take away the emotional resonance David Lowery's supernatural drama holds

| July 30, 2017

Back in January, for the second year in a row, audiences were treated to a secret film being announced by a major studio. In 2016, Paramount dropped the trailer for “10 Cloverfield Lane,” a mystery thriller produced by J.J. Abrams. Audiences were not only surprised and blindsides by this announcement, it went on to be one of the best films of 2016, holding my #1 spot for over 5 months during the year. This year, A24, no doubt a smaller studio, but a respected one, announced the showing of David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” at the Sundance Film Festival. Again, audiences were blindsided in how a film with such respected actors and an up-and-coming filmmaker could go under the radar for so long, let alone long enough for A24 to pick up the rights to it. Six months after the festival, audiences are finally treated to the mystery of “A Ghost Story.”

If they can handle it.

C (Casey Affleck) is a struggling musician living in a small suburban house with his wife, M (Rooney Mara). When C dies suddenly and unexpectedly in a car accident, M is left alone to fend for herself. From this point, “A Ghost Story” takes us back to the perspective of C, whose spirit has come back to reside in his home, awaiting M to show some sort of sign of her knowledge of his presence. When M moves out, C finds himself trapped in the house where he once lived, spectating the new tenants over the years, waiting for the day he might see M again.

“A Ghost Story” is fairly straightforward, particularly in its portrayal of ghosts as sheet-clad humanistic spirits. But Lowery’s approach to the film is one of ethereal beauty, to the point that many of the decisions he makes in the film come across way too artsy-fartsy and pretentious than a film like this should. This is the sole reason that “A Ghost Story” isn’t everything it could be, with the removal of many of these aspects, “A Ghost Story” would still have its emotionally resonant and moving moments about it. The film attempts to use visual allegory for much of the film, but often times steps on its own feet in attempting to portray many of the thematic elements without words. Shots feel excessively long at times for no reason and the film simply drags in some parts simply for its relative slowness Lowery is attempting to use as substitute for dialogue. The thing about this is that we don’t need it, as the film could easily rest on C’s actions alone, without any sort of pretentious form of artsiness that grinds the film to a halt at times.

But when “A Ghost Story” works, it works. When the film gets back on its feet, it’s a beautifully shot, wonderfully edited and impressively scored film for such a low budget. Shot in a rounded 1.33:1 aspect ratio, “A Ghost Story” relishes in its small budget and constricted space the film takes place in, something that many indie films don’t do. The gag now is to make films look as expensive as possible, but “A Ghost Story” doesn’t mind looking low budget, as long as it doesn’t look cheap, which it does not. The aspect ratio doesn’t make the film feel old in any regard, but strangely fits the style of house that C finds himself trapped in. It feels intimate like a home movie, but beautifully shot like a blockbuster film, which creates a really interesting visual dynamic that you simply don’t get in a film often.

The performances in the film are quite good, even if you can’t see Affleck’s face to really be sure, what we can see of him and of the rest of the cast is powerful and minimalist. I refuse to comment on how Affleck is in the ghost outfit, as I simply would be talking out of my own ass trying to find any sort of emotion seen from him, but the image of a classic sheet-clad ghost is haunting and quite effective surprisingly. Mara does quite a good job as M, reflecting much of the untapped grief that’s hard to pin down in film, including a 5 minute 26 second sequence of Mara grief eating an entire pie shortly after C’s death. While this might sound silly in theory, this is the one drawn out scene in the film I felt truly moved over, if only because I actually did the exact same thing with Sonic Tater Tots shortly after my grandfather’s death. It was a weird personal connection I held with the film that stayed with me after the film ended.

The score to the film by Daniel Hart is moving, ethereal and beautiful. Unlike something like “Lady Macbeth,” which uses as little music as it possibly could, “A Ghost Story” is packed full of this atmospheric score to make the film feel much more surreal than it already is. This is a great addition to the film that really solidifies its grander moments of profound loss and shell-shocking hopelessness.

Unrelated to the quality of the film, “A Ghost Story” is another one of those indie films that seem to be unfairly targeted by the MPAA with a completely ridiculous R-rating for no other reason than to reach some sort of quota. It happened the exact same way to “Their Finest,” but “A Ghost Story” is lucky in that much of its demographic lies above the age of 17, but the “brief language” the rating displays is completely nonexistent and the “disturbing image” is the brief view of a dead body that is typically much more detailed in other PG-13 movies. It’s yet another sign that the MPAA needs a serious overhaul.

Here’s the thing: there is a lot to like about “A Ghost Story,” to which I would say that it’s worth seeing over, but there’s a level of artsiness that breaks into levels of pretension as it goes on that makes it a tough film to really approach properly without having to really suspend a lot of inhibitions about what a film like this should be. Unfortunately, Lowery made the mistake of showing audiences both a level of pretension and the moving, emotional side to “A Ghost Story” viewers might initially want from a film like this. Showing both sides to this makes the air of artsiness that pervades a lot of the film feel much more like a chore than anything else. “A Ghost Story” packs a big punch when it uses its atmosphere and aesthetic in its favor, but unfortunately at the cost of an occasionally strenuous viewing experience.

Oh yeah, Kesha has a cameo too.

3/5

Photo courtesy of A24

Directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara.
Runtime: 92 minutes
Rating: R for brief language and a disturbing image.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Park Terrace and Ballantyne Village.

An A24 release, Sailor Bear presents, in association with Zero Trans Fat Productions and Ideaman Studios, “A Ghost Story”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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