Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Director: David Lowery
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director David Lowery is no auteur, no matter how many laughable long-takes and irritating slow pans he manages to squeeze into his latest film, A Ghost Story. Perhaps he grew impatient with incessant studio notes given to him during the production of his remake of Pete's Dragon, or simply mythologized the impact of his debut feature, the equally dull and ponderous Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Whatever the case, there's no excuse for putting audiences through the kind of self-serious nonsense masquerading as high art Lowery attempts here. Sure, maybe you've seen a few "Second New Wave" Taiwanese films, but let's not get carried away. Those with a keen understanding of foreign slow cinema will balk and chuckle throughout A Ghost Story, seeing it for the turkey that it truly is.
Along with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery does manage to conjure a few arresting images, but even the decision to shoot in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio feels like a faux-arty gimmick rather than a natural extension of the story. What story, exactly, you ask? Well, the loose narrative centers around a couple, credited as "C" and "M" (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), who live in a Texas home, are seemingly in love (they argue a lot, which is supposed to signify a "complicated" relationship), and often hear mysterious sounds in the dead of night. When Affleck's mopey musician suddenly dies in a car accident, he's resurrected as your prototypical white sheet-wearing ghost with eyeholes cutout. From there, the film lurches ahead with the ghost returning to the Texas house to silently observe M's cycle of grief, which apparently manifests itself in a single shot pie-eating sequence. Yes, Rooney Mara nearly eats an entire pie whilst holding back tears as Affleck's passive specter lurks in the background, and the unfortunate thing is such a moment will largely be regarded as "brave" for allowing emotional honesty to emerge through all of that Gluten Free crust. However, this decision highlights Lowery's misunderstanding of the ways in which slow cinema can be powerful. Simply allowing something to play out in real-time does not necessarily connote character depth, and the results here are painfully contrived.
Once the ghost begins traveling through time (or existing outside the confines of time, as it were), A Ghost Story moves away from the idea of being bound to a loved one or certain geographical space, and more into the realm of cosmos-spanning science fiction. Clearly, Lowery is attempting a poetic meditation on time and existence, but the film is so in love with itself that it suffocates any humor, sensuality, and relatable emotional specificity from the story. There are brief snapshots of the couple's life before the accident (the most annoying of which involves symphonic indie pop music Affleck's bore has been slaving over), but nothing is ever gleaned about them as human beings. Worse still is the inclusion of Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy) as a drunken party goer occupying the same Texas house at some indeterminate time, blathering on about the history of humankind as Affleck's ghost looks on. The way the party stops as everyone leans in to listen Oldham's stream of consciousness rants is crucial as to why the film is tone-deaf beyond belief; there's no conceivable reality in which the majority of these people wouldn't flee as soon as this sad hippie started speaking.
Had Lowery approached A Ghost Story with a sense of irony or playfulness, his odd experiment could have worked, but the film is striving so hard to be oblique that it comes across smug. It's the worst kind of art-house indie noodling; looking down on it's audience and expecting them to find something profound or existential by presenting beautifully composed images devoid of human feeling or context. What may have worked as a 15-minute short film takes on dreaded self-importance as it drones on into oblivion; telling us nothing about it's characters, the supposed afterlife, or what it means to terrorize a Mexican family by smashing dishes in one of the film's only attempts at "haunted house" style antics. Sadly, once you peek underneath those flowing white sheets, there's nothing there.