MOVIE REVIEW: A Ghost Story

Might as well get this out of the way. A Ghost Story is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine any middle ground here. You’re gonna love it, or hate it. Personally, count me as a “love it.” The film worked for me on every happy, sad, frustrating, mournful, tedious, emotional level. Writer/Director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) has crafted one of the most atmospheric, surreal cinematic experiences to hit theaters in a long time.

So what happens when we die? In this universe, Lowery posits that we have a choice to make. We can move on, wherever that leads us, or hang on, searching for ways to reconnect with what and who we’ve left behind. In A Ghost Story, our leading man is known only as C (Casey Affleck), and he’s chosen door #2 after a sudden death leaves him caught between this world and whatever comes next. He has left behind M (Rooney Mara), broken by the grief she feels over C’s loss. What transpires over the course of the next hour plus is a deeply affecting emotional journey designed to make the viewer feel….something. Your milage may vary on what that something truly is.

The film is shot with the intention of making things awkward and frustrating. You are expected to react, positively OR negatively, but at the very least, honestly. There are a couple of ways Lowery succeeds here…

First off, with death typically comes grief; perhaps the most personal of emotional responses. How we manage grief as individuals is a variable, not a singular experience shared by the greater whole. We spend a lot of time with M immediately following C’s death, and the camera of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo lingers on her, sometimes for an uncomfortable amount of time. M’s emptiness- her broken soul- is palpable, and it’s sometimes difficult to fixate on her, feeling guilty for intruding in such a personal experience. There is a standout scene in which we watch M eat a pie, left for her by a neighbor. And when I say we watch her eat a pie, I mean the WHOLE pie. And I mean a solid five minutes of a singular shot as M devours this pie, and though she never looks up, we can sense her sorrow…her anger…her incessant need to do something to regain a sense of control, even if that involves something as simple as engaging in a gluttonous display of stress eating. I got more emotional resonance from this scene than I did in some full movies I’ve seen this year.  It’s important to point out how affecting this scene is and how wonderful Mara is in pulling it off. For us as viewers, it serves as the point of no return regarding whether or not we’ll decide to see it all through.

Secondly, there is a concept of time which serves as the central theme in A Ghost Story. More specifically, the passage of time, and the infinite loneliness saddled within it. How, pardon the pun, haunting must it be to be caught in a no man’s land, unable to communicate with the people right in front of you, unable to do anything other than watch them move on from you. You are literally watching yourself being erased and there is nothing to be done about it. Eventually, you have forgotten what it is you were even looking for. This is how C spends his endless moments. Standing, staring, existing. Affleck doesn’t have much heavy lifting to do here.  He spends the bulk of the film under a sheet with black eye holes, but somehow this never feels like a cheap parlor trick. It could’ve easily been a cheesy gimmick, like some sort of link to a Charlie Brown Halloween, but it ends up working well.

Eventually, Lowery explores some interesting ideas around time continuum, adding elements to his narrative which expand on the concept of existing with the burden of infinite purposelessness. The atmosphere, one of quiet stillness, where at times you could easily hear a pin drop, is aided by the soft, funeral score of Daniel  Hart.  On occasion, Lowery provides a jolt as the living world intersects with the lingering spirits on screen, and yes, I said spirits. I won’t give anything away, but yes, C might have to carry the burden of loneliness, but he isn’t always alone.

Movies like this are why the art house was invented. I’ll say this… if you can’t get yourself past the pie scene without rolling your eyes in frustration, just cut the chord and go for tacos. If you can hang on though, be prepared for an unique experience; one which may occupy your thoughts for quite a while. I’d be curious to hear from someone who has recently lost someone close, and to see how the film resonates with them. There is sadness in abundance, but also glimpses of hope, and perhaps even catharsis.

Rating:

 

 

What We Learned This Week: July 23-29

LESSON #1: ARE CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S FILMS EMOTIONLESS?— The prolific and cerebral director of Dunkirk recently answered critics who have called his films “emotionless.”  They must have missed the sharp revenge of Memento, the stirring heroic feels of his Batman trilogy, the seething jealousy of The Prestige, the suspenseful mental weight of Inception, and the familial anguish of Interstellar.  Emotionless, my ass.  I’m afraid Dunkirk will be the challenge.  I don’t think it has the necessary emotional anchors, but my Feelin’ Film peers will say otherwise.  See it for yourself (on the biggest and loudest screen possible) and let us know what you think.

LESSON #2: NETFLIX IS AN EVOLVING ENIGMA FOR THE MOVIE BUSINESS— Speaking of Christopher Nolan, he recently made negative comments on Netflix’s strategy of simultaneous streaming and release windows that take away from theatrical films.  GQ recently collected a roundtable of directors (included Ava DuVernay, Edgar Wright, Jeff Nichols, and James Gunn) who “blew up Hollywood.”  That led many, especially the Nolan disciplines, to raise those anti-Netflix pitchforks we’ve been back and forth on all year in this column.  A voice of contrast came out at much the same time from A Ghost Story director David Lowery calling the behemoth hub a “service to the industry,” especially for mid-range independent film who don’t have a chance in the theatrical marketplace (especially against the likes of Nolan’s films and their backing).  I side with Lowery, and what’s good enough for Martin Scorsese is good enough for me.  I see more help than harm, and it’s still too soon to see the growing effects, positive or negative.

LESSON #3: PRICE POINT IS THE NUMBER ONE ISSUE OF FILM VIEWERSHIP— Echoing the first two lessons this week and a great thread on the Feelin’ Film Facebook group, this whole audience problem comes down to money, plain and simple.  A family of four can get more content out of the recurring price of a Netflix subscription or more repeat viewing from the one-time-price DVD/Blu-ray disc purchase at Walmart than they would hauling everyone to the theater for tickets and concessions multiple times a year.  Add to that the substantially reduced prices for HD and Smart TVs compared to 10 or even 5 years ago.  While I fully endorse to the magic of the communal big screen experience, one would crazy not to see the price point logic and respect a smart household’s budgeting decisions.  It’s all about bang-for-your-buck and Netflix is winning that right now with content volume and ease of access.

LESSON #4: SOME FILMS DON’T BELONG IN SPACE— Bigger isn’t necessarily better, and how big is too big?  Space is too big.  I recently learned that answer when Fast and Furious series director F. Gary Gray said that a future sequel of the franchise that started with lowly car thieves in L.A. could be set in space.  WTF?!  Straining believability is fun and all, but that’s too much.  Has no one this century seen the Moonraker James Bond film?  Stop already.  Go back to Paul Walker’s sunset and be done.

LESSON #5: SOMEBODY TAKE JAMES CAMERON’S CRAZINESS AWAY— Apparently, James Cameron thinks he’s got another Terminator trilogy for the masses.  Come on, man.  While I respect the visual envelope-pushing and industry revolutionizing Cameron can perform, the man can be a quack as a writer.  That and, by the time he gets to this project for how slow he works, Arnold will be 100-years-old or we’ll all be dead.  Somebody shake this bad idea out of him and tell him to go finish Avatar 2 already.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

 

 

Feelin’ It: A Ghost Story

(SPOILER FREE) We do our best to tell you what A Ghost Story is, and isn’t, so that you can decide if it’s worth your time. It will either frustrate you or leave you haunted. Listen now to find out which you’ll be.

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Intro/Outro Music – “Seeing the Future” by Dexter Britain

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