Movie Review: A Ghost Story (2017)
Halfway through the movie, which we watched at home, Patricia got up to get some ice cream. “Don’t pause,” she said. “I’m sure I won’t miss anything.”
Truer words. I don’t know if writer-director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) has been studying at the Hou Hsiao-hsien School of Holding the Camera on Nothing for Five Minutes, but at times it sure felt like it.
There’s M (Rooney Mara) sitting on the kitchen floor shortly after the death of her husband, and eating a pie a friend brought by. Good, she could use some meat on them bones. And there’s her husband, C (Casey Affleck), now a ghost, wearing a sheet, a literal white sheet, with eyeholes that looks like slanted lemons, standing just in frame watching her. And watching her. And watching her. Until after four minutes, maybe five, she bolts for the bathroom to throw up. (So much for meat on them bones.)
And ... scene. Finally.
“A Ghost Story” is an interesting experiment, and I enjoyed it more in the aftermath than in the watching. But top 10 for the year? I’ve seen a handful of critics who elevated it so; that’s why we watched it. Halfway through, as Patricia was going for ice cream, I wanted to strangle these guys.
It begins with a young couple living in a nondescript clapboard house. In bed, arm in arm, like young lovers do, she tells him a story:
When I was little we used to move all the time. I’d write these notes, and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them in different places. So that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.
Tuck that away.
The house makes odd noises. At one point, in the middle of the night, it sounds like something heavy fell on their piano, and he, followed by she, goes to investigate. They find nothing, despite the ominous music.
“Is it the ghost story already?” I asked Patricia. “I thought he was supposed to be the ghost.”
A second later, he becomes the ghost. Car accident on a road that doesn’t have much traffic. There’s a stillness to the movie, and to this scene, and to the scene in the hospital where his body is covered with a sheet and then rises. Right, I thought, I guess that’s why ghosts have sheets; because we cover dead bodies with them. But who cut out the eyeholes?
He walks down the hospital hallway, a window opens in a wall, holds, and then closes. His opportunity to step into the Whatever? But something is keeping him here and he returns to it: his home, his wife. A piece of him waiting.
There’s a temporal dislocation to the movie, and, one imagines, to the ghost’s perspective. After the pie eating/throwing up, we see M heading out the door to work. And then again. And again. The same path, bedroom to front door, one right after the other. He remains. A man walks her to her door. He’s taller than C but less handsome. A consoling hug leads to a kiss, and then an awkward “Yeah, that was a bad idea” goodbye. Then rage from C, who knocks over a framed photo. She gathers it up, looks around. Is that why she leaves?
They were planning on moving anyway, and now she does, and the big question is if he’ll follow or remain behind. It’s the latter. A new family moves in: Hispanic mother with two kids. I like them running into the home, excited, on that first day. C is less enthused. Is it that he’s slow to comprehend? It takes a while for him to start dashing plates against the floor, but when he does they freak and move out. And des the boy see him? He seems to, but we’re not sure. We’re not sure of a lot.
Before M left, she wrote a little note, as when she was a girl, and put it into a small doorframe crack and painted over it; and in the aftermath of the family, and of kids partying there—with one dude, an annoying grad student or autodidact, expounding on the vastness of all, and the tininess of us—C tries to remove it. We don’t know how long it takes but he’s just about there when over his shoulder the blade of a bulldozer comes crashing through a wall. The place is leveled. C stays. A high-rise office building is put up. C stays. He wanders its hallways, then, from a top floor, leaps off and winds up in the same spot in the past. Now he’s with homesteaders. 18th century? 19th century? They’re killed by Indians. C’s like the Watcher in the old Marvel comics: a silent observer of the grim parade.
Before long he’s observing himself and M looking at the place for the first time. So, yes, he’s the ghost the heard that night; he’s the one who made the piano noise. Before long, there’s another ghost there—him—and I worried. Oh no, is this going to be like Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Like Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence? A room full of ghosts? And does his younger ghost-self see his older ghost-self? He doesn’t seem to, and he (and we) didn’t see anything the first go-round. Odd, because ghosts do see each other. Early on, C saw one across the way, and once the houses were leveled she declared, silently, via subtitles, “I guess they’re never coming back” and dropped out of existence. The sheet just crumpled, empty. That’s how ghosts go.
That's how C goes, too. In the second go-round, he finally pries her note from the doorframe crack, opens it, and drops out of existence.
Why does he stay? Immediately I assumed for her, but then I wondered if it wasn’t the house—that stupid, ugly clapboard. Or the spot? The land? The ending brings us back to the original supposition. It's a kind of continuation of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” in which Casey kept catching up to Rooney. Jail couldn’t keep him from her. Now it's death. We never find out what the note says, but what it says isn't really important. What's important is that it frees him to die.
The movie’s moody and atmospheric, still and almost silent. Lowery’s a talented director. But he tried my patience too long in the beginning with those Hou Hsiao-hsien shots, and I grumbled through the rest of it. It’s twice as long as it should be. Ideally it should be 45 minutes but there’s no place for that kind of thing in our world anymore.