Film review: A Ghost Story

David Gritten / 11 August 2017

Has David Lowery re-invented the ghost story genre? David Gritten assesses A Ghost Story.

Writer-director David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story arrives from across the Atlantic, carrying with it a host of favourable reviews. Its supporters claim it has taken a familiar genre (yes, the ghost story) and turned it on its head, making it into something new.

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Well, up to a point. It’s certainly like no other ghost story you’ve ever seen on screen before. But that alone isn’t sufficient to make it watchable. 

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple known only as C and M, who move into a modest suburban Texan house. They don’t talk much and seem distanced from each other. Disturbingly, on their first night, they hear a few notes played on the piano that came with the house. Nothing immediately comes of it, but a few days later C is found dead in a car wreck.

In the course of a forbiddingly long, silent, still shot, she finally identifies his corpse, replaces the white sheet over him, then leaves. At which point he arises from the slab in the morgue, the sheet over his head – with two eyeholes crudely cut from it. So he’s the ghost.

As such, he observes her going about her life in the house. At one point she receives a pie from a sympathetic friend, sits on the floor and eats it from its tray with a fork while he watches. But here’s the thing – the camera stays on her eating the pie until she’s through. This takes several minutes, at which point you start to feel your own life slipping away.

It turns out David Lowery has a weakness for keeping his camera still for overlong scenes, which severely test the audience’s patience – in my case, well past endurance. A Ghost Story clocks in at 92 minutes, but it feels twice as long.

For the rest of the film, Affleck (we have to take it on faith it really is him) wanders around covered in the bedsheet, unseen by the living. There’s a comic, absurd element to all this, which Lowery (to his credit) does nothing to downplay. Yet for the most part, the film has a oddly still, tranquil quality.

The invisible ghost wanders around the house as successive families move in, then out. We move backward and forward in time. What does the ghost want? Simply to be remembered, perhaps? We cut to an apparently unrelated scene (again, overlong) at a booze-soaked party in the house, where an irritating middle-aged hipster (played by singer-songwriter Will Oldham) explains to the crowd that hoping to be remembered when you’re gone is futile -because ‘by and by the planet will die.’ There’s quite a lot of such ruminating on one’s own existence, and frankly it becomes tedious.

A Ghost Story certainly has its virtues; it’s beautifully shot, generally well acted (though would it kill Affleck to articulate his lines more clearly?) and sometimes agreeably surprising. But what with those scenes that drag on past all dramatic logic, the film finally founders on its own sense of self-importance.

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