A Ghost Story (2017)

*. Let’s start, it’s as good a place as any, with the divide between a film’s critical and public reception. In general, the reviews of A Ghost Story were strong. Though it didn’t have a wide release, making box office hard to quantify, the general public seemed a lot less impressed. Critics found it a profound meditation on love and loss. Audiences were bored out of their minds. Is there any settling this?
*. I can see where people might find it annoying. It is slow moving, and on the commentary track they even mention the “slow film” (or “slow cinema”) movement, which mainly refers to long takes with little or no camera movement. I detect a slight family resemblance, but overall I don’t think A Ghost Story is nearly slow enough to be slow film. It’s also interesting that they point out on the commentary how Casey Affleck couldn’t move quickly in the ghost costume because the sheet was so big he could only do a kind of bunny hop.

*. Another possible source of annoyance is the silence, or lack of dialogue. This is deliberate, to the point where I think writer-director David Lowery was making a joke of it. He seems to be saying that dialogue doesn’t have much function, not just in this film but in life. We never hear anything, or at least very much of what M and C (the young couple) say to each other. We don’t even learn their names. Then when the new family move in they’re speaking in Spanish, without subtitles (the only subtitles we get are for the ghosts, and we can’t hear them). The only big chunk of script comes in the monologue delivered by the bore at the party (Will Oldham, credited as “Prognosticator”), and I think most people mentally shut him off after a couple of minutes. Finally, it is never revealed what M has written in the note she sticks in the doorjamb.
*. In all of this the point, I think, is that what’s being said is not important. But Lowery was aware of the fact that part of the effect was also to make the film more “vaporous.”
*. The business with the secret note is part of a final annoyance I’ll mention, which is the film’s cuteness. This begins with the appearance of the morose ghost itself, which is very “meta” as the hipsters have it. Then there is the extended pie-eating scene. Is all of this being too clever, knowing, ironic? I can understand it putting some people’s back up.
*. None of the things I’ve been mentioning are necessarily strikes against A Ghost Story, but I offer them up as examples of the kinds of things that might have turned audiences off. Now let’s be more positive.
*. There are a lot of things to like. I’ve enjoyed Rooney Mara in everything I’ve seen her in. She has presence and can act. The score by Daniel Hart has some beautiful moments and it really grew on me over repeated viewings. The photography generates wonderful atmosphere. The air seems thick with something, even if it’s only light. And finally a tiny budget is made to go a long way, giving a small story giant edges without becoming ridiculous. I’m not sure I liked the past and future sequences that much, but they weren’t overly awkward and seemed to fit well with the rest of the picture.

*. I’ll even defend the pie-eating scene. It doesn’t actually go on that long, and M’s overindulgence in comfort food does represent her emotional state. It’s also interesting how absorbed we become in watching her, to the point where we don’t even notice the ghost standing in the background (according to the commentary this seems to have been a common effect). But, on the other hand, how much does such a scene communicate? How much can it?
*. Where A Ghost Story disappoints me is in the love story. There’s just not enough flesh on these bones. As a story of love and mourning is it any more profound than Ghost (1990)? I’ll accept that in some cases less can be more, and that in any close relationship much is unsaid and communicated either obliquely or in silence. But it seems to me that Lowery is asking us to do a lot of work reading much into the feelings M and C have for one another.
*. The score helps, a lot, but everything about this movie leaves us on the outside looking in. Then there’s the fact that the second half or so of the movie drops M pretty much completely, only circling back around to her in a time loop at the end. It’s hard not to feel as though Lowery’s attention has wandered.
*. I was impressed by the young talent showcased in this film. It’s really put across very well in all departments. I’m just a bit let down that there wasn’t more to it in the end. It has the feel of a film-school project to it, with lots to show but not much to say.

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