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A Ghost Story – Review


Release Date: 11 August 2017
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Cast: Casey Affleck - Rooney Mara - McColm Cephas Jr.



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Posted August 28, 2017 by

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A Ghost Story Review:

On paper, it sounds ridiculous: A young widow is followed home by the hospital sheet-draped ghost of her recently deceased husband, and he continues to haunt their modest bungalow, wearing the most basic of children’s Halloween costumes, as she works through her grief. But David Lowery’s quiet little film, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s story, A Haunted House, somehow builds into a devastating meditation on love, loss, and the fleeting nature of human existence which is nothing short of sublime.

While barely any time passes between us first encountering the couple known only as ‘C’ (Casey Affleck) and ‘M’ (Rooney Mara) and C’s death in a car crash just outside their home, the extraordinarily intimate nature of the opening scenes means we are already heavily invested in their relationship when the bereavement happens. The dialogue is sparse, and a sense of melancholia – foreboding even – pervades, but an almost uncomfortably long shot of the couple snuggled up in bed conveys their closeness far more effectively than on-screen sex or outward declarations could.

C’s death happens off-screen, and the aftermath and M’s subsequent identification of the body are shrouded in numb silence. It’s almost comical when C’s hospital sheet moves, and he sits up – Lazurus like – to follow his wife home. This feels like a visual representation of the denial stage of grief, the nagging feeling that a loved one can’t possibly be gone. That the loss must be some kind of terrible joke. The ‘sheet’ that M wears is actually a very effective piece of costume design. The fabric has a weight to it which, combined with the boxy aspect ratio of the presentation suggests entrapment and smothering. C’s life after death is something he is saddled with and unable to escape, however much he may want to. This is underscored by his inability to get to the note M secretes in the wall of the house before she leaves it for good, as she used to do with every place she moved on from as a child. C’s sheet prevents him being able to reach into the tiny nook to retrieve the paper, and renders him unable to escape his own private purgatory.

A Ghost Story Review

Confined to the house, he must stay in limbo as M comes to terms with his absence and begins to move on with her life, dating a new man, and finally leaving, only for a new family to move in to the home. C’s mounting despair results in some poltergeist activity, and there’s a smart reveal at the film’s climax which reframes earlier incidents in a heartbreaking way. C’s isolation is punctuated with short interactions with a ghost in a neighbouring house who knows they are waiting for something but has forgotten what, but even this entity disappears eventually leaving C to face the gaping maws of time utterly alone.

Affleck has to pack a lot into his brief time outside of the sheet. He does an admirable job of sketching C as a loving husband, a good man, but prone to mood swings and self-absorption. There’s something of the tortured artist about him, and for reasons unknown he has an attachment to the house which is a source of consternation to M. In one outstanding scene, M remembers being played a song C has written (the gorgeously sad I Get Overwhelmed by Dark Rooms, played almost in its entirety) for the first time, and her beautifully nuanced reactions to it suggest more about their relationship than words ever could – an undercurrent of loneliness in an ocean of profound love.

A Ghost Story cast

Mara turns in a stunning performance as M. Her economical style lends greater weight to gut-wrenching moments such as when she sits on the kitchen floor and eats the best part of an entire pie in real time, only to throw it up again once the tears start flowing. It’s a scene about trying to fill the void grief leaves, but also about the people we are when we’re totally alone, certain that no one is around to witness us being our worst selves. Affleck too manages to be utterly captivating as the faceless spectre dogging M’s every move, and his confusion and horror at becoming a remnant, unanchored to one lifetime, are palpable, seeping from beneath his veil.

A Ghost Story isn’t an easy watch. Lowery’s tendency to linger on a single shot or scene for too long is a brilliant device for underscoring the existential horror of C’s condition, for making us feel as voyeuristic and helpless as he is, but it is less successful in the scene where man played by musician Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie Prince Billy) holds court at a party (also featuring a cute cameo from Kesha), and ponders the concept of legacy and the things human do to endure, concluding that all efforts are futile because the world and universe will also end eventually. It’s an integral theme of the movie, but such a lengthy and nihilistic monologue in the midst of so much stillness feels slightly jarring and over-egged.

A Ghost Story movie

I suspect this film will prove divisive. People who feel strong nostalgic attachments to places and objects, who love fervently and feel their own mortality keenly, and regularly wonder about their place in the universe, cannot fail to be shaken by it. But those looking for traditional horror movie fare may find the slow, reflective pace and lack of action frustrating. Original and like nothing else out there, this is a film which poses questions almost too awful to contemplate. If nothing lasts, why try to endure? Death is inevitable, as is mourning and healing, but what if the dead grieve too? How can you hope to change your circumstances if you don’t understand them?

A deeply moving piece, A Ghost Story manages to be both an incredibly private story, and a completely universal one. Daniel Hart’s beautiful score adds to the ephemeral, dream-like feel of the piece, and muted tones pierced with shafts of golden sunlight suggest hope despite the gloom. Ultimately, Lowery has created something which will haunt the memory for a long time after viewing. If ever the ghost of a film got up and followed me out of the cinema, it’s this one. It deserves to endure.


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Katie Young
Katie Young – Author
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