David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is the most haunting film I have seen this year, but it isn’t scary. Two weeks have passed since I viewed this film and goosebumps still emerge on my skin when the memories of certain scenes bubble up in my mind. That should be no surprise though as the film subjects its audience to life in a painfully realistic way. Before writing any more, I would implore any reader to view the film before proceeding. The less you know the better; I would only suggest preparing yourself with patience.
This film does not take short cuts, nor does it placate to the undoubtedly hurried wishes of its viewers. There is no question this film will successfully cause a great deal of frustration and theatre-walkouts. The parallels with real life are eerily similar in even this situation. How easily do we walk out of tough situations in life without trying to really understand what’s happening or get to the real resolution? An extended shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie (9 minutes long if I read correctly) hit me like a ton of bricks. It is a scene one must endure. It is a painful scene because it’s real. The prolonged residual agony of real tragedy does not have cuts or different angles; it is us, the suffering, who is staring at the pie, trying our damnedest to feel something else.
The film follows Casey Affleck’s character after his death. Most of his onscreen appearance has him draped by the classically goofy attire of a white sheet. There is a sardonic brilliance to his wardrobe; he is our point of view through this long journey, yet he looks like a joke. It almost serves as an ironic anchor. The sight of the silly protagonist reminds us to remain observers. Consequently, we do observe a great many things.
We observe one of the more contentious moments of the film: a partygoer lost on a tangent about the meaninglessness of life and everything about it. The irony is unknown to him that an entity who has seen more than this man ever will and who is better poised to address the subject simply observes and remains silent. I can’t help but wonder if the Lyndon B. Johnson quote, “You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking” ties into that scene.
The transition of time is unorthodox and laced with melancholy. This portrayal lays the foundation for the film and provides the different landscapes our hooded figure witnesses. Travelling through time, the land is seen in its most natural state to its most “developed” state: a not-so-futuristic high rise populated by suited nobodies with grim humour tied to every unnoticed step the ghost takes. One of the first moments in time occurring in the frontier gives us the film’s most grisly sight. It is this particular passage of time that strikes hardest.
The film offers a surprising number of moments of levity. We witness a series of “ghost talks” with Casey’s character communicating to another ghost, similarly sheeted, in a neighbouring house. We only know what’s being said through subtitles. Each conversation borders on absurdity that gives the film a bit of breathing room. Viewed through a vacuum, the subtitled conversation could be seen as a cruel joke and one might rhetorically say “you can’t be serious.” But when paired with things like our protagonist’s attire, it comes together to create a more human viewing experience. Through the most trying times in our lives, we often seek temporary solace in humour, even if it’s in bad taste.
Ultimately the film is steeped in humanity. The simplicity and unflinching sights we’re shown distinguish it from other films who might offer thoughts on the enormity of life, time, and everything in between. This film is unquestionably ambitious. Its choices sound absurd on paper and to be sure this is not a mainstream treat. The poetry and parallels with real life I find in this film keep growing. A Ghost Story is the cinematic equivalent of the proverbial road less traveled, and I was better for having watched it.
I give it a sold A rating. It’s the best 2017 film I’ve seen this year.