Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Ghost Story

Director: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo, Rob Zabrecky, Liz Franke, Kenneisha Thompson, Barlow Jacobs
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

How often do we hear the obviously discomforting phrase, "Life Goes On" when someone passes away? If David Lowery's haunting and affecting A Ghost Story isn't one the saddest films about loss that's ever been made, then it's certainly among the greatest. It takes that statement and truly gets inside it, offering up a contemplative, poetic meditation on living and dying in this universe that's so important it feels as if we've been given answers to questions we didn't know we needed, or even wanted. And the script never once advertises it's doing that. Lowery just lets his story wash over us, showing what it must be like, to not only live with the grief surrounding a catastrophic loss like this, but be the deceased. It knows that while life does technically "go on" for most, it's nothing but an empty platitude when applied to the person who's gone.

So, how then can this film possibly attempt to articulate the feeling of no longer being alive? It's not as if the deceased can feel or do anything. And that's exactly the point. The entire concept is ingenious in its simplicity, and as you've already likely heard, this is the movie where Casey Affleck stands around in a white sheet with eyeholes and Rooney Mara eats an entire pie. That's the easy description, and on that alone you'll get a handful of people who won't see it, or will, and say they were bored to tears because "nothing happened." That's fine, but a lot happens, just not in the way anyone's used to. Emotionally, it's difficult to get through because it dares to go places that guarantee a lasting experience for those prone to falling under its spell.

Sparse and achingly real, there isn't much narrative to be found because it's interested in ideas large enough to transcend it. What starts as a painful reflection on love and loss gradually builds to more, crossing time, space and existence as it maintains this uncomfortable intimacy with the familiarity and monotony of everyday life. Unbearably depressing and strangely uplifting all at once, it's staying power already seems unrivaled, continuing to grow in my estimation since its initial viewing.

Quiet, sensitive Texas-based musician, "C" (Affleck) lives with his wife, "M" (Mara) in a small suburban home he loves, but she's hoping they can soon move out of. Unfortunately, the final decision rests with neither, as a tragic, sudden car accident claims C's life as he pulls out of their driveway early in the morning. While lying on the mortician's table, his spirit appears to rise from his lifeless body, and wearing a white bedsheet with two eye holes, he returns to their house as a passive, invisible observer of his grieving widow. Watching as C attempts to put the pieces of her now shattered life back together, he takes in the painful realization that things will gradually get easier for her. Soon, he'll be gone a little longer, and as a result, that absence may mean a little less.

C will meet new people and will surely now want to sell a house that contains plenty of warm memories, but stands primarily as a depressing reminder of a future together that's gone. While she can leave, he's trapped, standing on the sidelines long enough to frustratingly witness a new family move in and the house turn over yet again. He stays and waits for her to come back. Will she? When C's journey finally takes him out of the house, he embarks on a transformative trip through time and memory, finding out what it truly means to leave a lasting legacy in a universe where everyone has a history.

Emotional devastation. That's really the only proper description for what Lowery accomplishes in taking a seemingly ludicrous premise of a dead guy walking around in a ghost sheet and wringing such pathos out of it. Even one or two half-steps wrong in the presentation of this admittedly high risk concept could have resulted in disaster, but he somehow successfully walks that razor's edge, delivering this melancholic tone poem that haunts and wonders with each new scene. Much of that comes from the fact that you can sense the presence of C under the sheet.

You can just tell it's Casey Affleck under there rather than some stand-in or double. From the height to the posture and movements, it's definitely him, and you get the impression any attempt at a substitution would negatively manifest itself in a piece built entirely around mood and feeling. He has to move just right for all of this to work and not seem ridiculous, but Affleck goes several steps further with his head gestures, finding ways to convey an entire range of emotions through, yes, a sheet.

Much has been made of Rooney Mara's infamous pie-eating scene, but it seems that audiences are more put off by the audacity of the idea than the actual event, which sees her desperate, grief stricken character ravenously goes to town on this pie all within a single take. It's clear why the scene's here, as it might be the only true release M allows herself in the wake of this tragedy, but what's less obvious is how anyone could have serious thematic issues with it. If they're just bored then that's fine, as the film probably isn't for them anyway since many other scenes feel even longer. But Lowery's not just being pretentious or trying to shock. Rather, it's a deliberate attempt to take us inside the head space of a character who's dying inside, and that it succeeds at it (and much more when factoring in who else is in the room) should be enough to claim it works better than any lines of spoken dialogue could. It also calls to mind an old expression that you'd even watch a certain actor or actress just read the phone book for two hours. This takes less time, but substitute a dessert dish for that phone book and Rooney passes the test.

Possibly from corroborating once before on a Lowery project, Mara and Affleck have this easygoing shorthand as a couple in the early scenes, of which there are surprisingly few. Once the death occurs, most of the remainder belongs to her, carrying those scenes of grieving with expressions and silences that seem unconsciously plugged in to his spectral presence without ever truly being aware of it.
Daniel Hart's unnerving and hypnotizing score also adds to that feeling with invisible subtly, even as the film's loudest proclamation of outright emotion, Hart's band Dark Rooms' "I Get Overwhelmed" exceeds any expectation of a song powerful enough to break down the barriers between life and death.

With long enough stretches of no dialogue to qualify as a silent film, Lowery leans heavily on visuals, sound design, score and the performances to tell the story. The combination of being shot in an extremely boxy aspect ratio and Andrew Droz Palermo's washed out, grainy cinematography recreate the look of a vintage photo, while also serving to enhance the claustrophobia. It's as if we're looking through a peephole or viewfinder into these characters' lives, much like the deceased protagonist.

It's hard to prepare for what you'll experience when a premise this far outside the box lands on your lap. But there's no mistaking that A Ghost Story is, in every possible sense, an experience, albeit one requiring the viewer to enter with an open mind and heart. So many of its scenes are unforgettably haunting. Whether it's a sudden, explosive expression of the ghost's anger directed at strangers who have taken over his home, an unbearably sad, subtitled silent conversation that takes place between apparitions, or time travel trips into the future and past that deliver a cold but somewhat comforting truth: While the world goes on without us, it's entirely possible we each left a mark that made it just a little better for whoever comes next.

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