A Ghost Story ★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


I suppose the thinking goes like this. You're anchoring your film with a singularly ridiculous image, one that is primarily associated with a failure of imagination and / or lack of resources around Halloween. So yes, the ghost in the white sheet is a bit of a conceptual gambit. How will you calibrate for this? Well naturally, by making every other part of the film as pompous and self-important as possible.

A Ghost Story is obviously a calculated piece of film rhetoric, since it doesn't just trade on the Bed Bath & Beyond insta-spook for its faux-humility. Writer-director David Lowery sets everything in a modest little corner of the world, with its shabby-chic decor and hipster Americana, so as to call forth a supposed discrepancy that makes its overt lunges into metaphysics seem "surprising," or even modest in their own way.

This is a ruse. Everything about A Ghost Story is cynically engineered, from Casey Affleck's diffident, unintelligible mumbling and Rooney Mara's thousand-yard grieving stare right up through Will Oldham's drunk-philosopher explication of the film's every theme. Having the Affleck-ghost tied to a particular location and unable to move on is an effective if not particularly interesting way to articulate the mismatched temporality of the living and the dead. But there is no real explanation as to why ghosts are space-bound, waiting for returns that clearly will never happen. We see Affleck-ghost move around, so it presumably has the omnipotence to follow Mara's character if it so desired.

But this is nit-picky. Let's assume Lowery is simply going with the classic notion of a haunting, which is bound to a particular place of emotional intensity. It still doesn't account for the inflated sense of cosmic purpose with which Lowery invests the dead man's limbo. Either the ghost is truly one with everything, existing in a temporal plane more harmonized and instantaneous than anything we as mortals can perceive, or else he is stranded on the mortal plane, watching centuries unfold. This is a paradox that Lowery can solve only in the most bizarre possible fashion -- by having time loop in on itself in an eternal return that (arbitrarily) begins with the American pioneers.

I want to be clear. I am not trying to find logical loopholes in Lowery's cosmology, even though it makes no real sense to me. This is not like one of those reviews that uses charts and graphs to, for example, demonstrate flaws in a time-travel movie. But I want to explain why the plight of Affleck-ghost -- the emotional center of the film -- rings so hollow. Much of this has to do with the mannered, actorly behavior of both performers, no doubt under direction from Lowery. Dead Affleck stares mournfully under his sheet, with just the hint of a cocked head. Mara, meanwhile, delivers a performance with all the hallmarks of an acting workshop. ("I want you to eat a whole pie... out of grief. Go!")

But destroying the Spanish-speaking family's household kind of shows what A Ghost Story is all about. Affleck's character is a bit of a rage-monkey, and the more we learn about him, the less compelling he is, alive or dead. It's likely that Lowery wanted to reduce him and Mara to their most primal -- the universal heterosexual couple, a kind of sub-Malickian maneuver. But so much relies on our ability to care about the ghost's plight. And neither he nor Mara are sufficiently individuated to elicit our concern. By the same token, there is no reason, aside from Lowery's cinematic say-so, that we should accept them as archetypal.

In the end, the Affleck character is just someone who, even after death, would prefer to choose misery over change. Come to think of it, perhaps A Ghost Story is an allegory about depression. This wouldn't make me like it more, but it would certainly make it more interesting.

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