REVIEW: A Ghost Story [2017]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: July 7th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: A24
Director(s): David Lowery
Writer(s): David Lowery

“I don’t remember”


There’s a character (Will Oldham‘s ‘Prognosticator’) in David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story—a sparse meditation on life, love, grief, and death—who delivers a dissertation of that very film. Or at least what pedantically pretentious windbags such as he would think the film means in order to minimize art’s infinite power to profoundly and timelessly touch our souls. He goes on and on about how nothing we do matters. It’s a nihilist rant propping up the beauty of the abstract when working towards the divine only to tear it down in his atheistic notion that God does not exist. So while we believe music and literature brings us closer to some grand infinity, it’s all just binary physics-driven code soon to be erased forever like you and me.

This dude is annoyingly reductive and absolutely punchable. He’s smug enough to keep going, beating his dead horse of a Nietzsche Cliff Note’s lesson into the ground and still somehow enrapturing the attention of alcohol-addled revelers partying around him who stop to listen as though he’s Plato. And it renders any promise or potential the film may have possessed moot by provoking us into projecting his character onto it—a personification of this very film. Rather than hope for some moment of epiphany to give the whole meaning, I began wondering if the older couple behind me uttering sounds of exasperated boredom before walking out were correct. Maybe this movie was ridiculous, meaningless, and yet another artistic creation to be consumed by the sun along with Earth itself.

Why did I take it as an unironic self-commentary rather than an ironic parody internally simplifying what proves to be deeper externally? Because Casey Affleck‘s bed sheet-wearing specter as voyeur through time and space let him finish. Here’s a supernatural entity seen by us but no one else that runs the gamut of emotions without uttering a single word. We only know what he’s feeling through action and score. Standing in the background amongst melancholic music equals contemplation, futility, and sorrow. Close-ups on his two black, cutout eyes with jarringly loud chords equal anger and frustration—enough that the lights may flicker as objects fall from the shelves. And when he’s really anxious and cranky, those objects will be thrown to the horrified shock of any innocents present.

So we’re to believe Affleck’s ‘C’ has no problems with what Will Oldham’s ‘Prognosticator’ says. He agrees even though he exists as proof of life after death and therefore an uncharted world where timeless treasures of art won’t die. Fine. If he’ll throw plates at little children because he’s bored at not being able to understand what they’re saying (a Spanish-speaking family isn’t allowed subtitles since we shouldn’t know what ‘C’ doesn’t) but not in the direction of a man who desperately needs to shut-up (I would have even taken a smack upside the head by Brea Grant or Kesha, both sitting there listening), I have to begrudgingly believe that its message is authentic. Our world and our creations are merely time wasters until our inevitable demise.

So why am I watching? The imagery is gorgeous and the sheer filmmaking technique unforgettable, but what’s beneath that surface? What are we supposed to get out of this ghost’s journey—one ignited by his refusal to go towards the “light”? I know a ton of people who have an answer to this, but I cannot take them seriously because I am constantly reminded of Oldham’s words. I’m constantly dismissing this film as a piece of work intentionally pretending to be more than its physical parts’ limitations. I can’t agree it’s more because I don’t think the film itself believes. The simple fact that ‘C’ is represented by a child’s imaginative concept of “ghost” only supports this idea that nothing can or should be held sacred or profound.

Having ‘C’ remain in his home well after his wife ‘M’ (Rooney Mara) left isn’t an argument against Oldham, it’s corroboration. He still exists as a physical form in one realm if not ours and will disappear with it when the time comes. Not only that, there’s literally no escape. After spending decades or centuries tethered to the land where his and ‘M’s’ house used to reside, ‘C’ attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of the skyscraper built in its place. Doing so doesn’t free him. It doesn’t just force him to get back up and continue his silent brooding either. No, this hasty act transports him to the 19th century when the first “home” was erected there. Now he’s able to experience his own past too.

Yes he has unfinished business: to read the note ‘M’ hid in their wall before moving on months or years after his death. Yes there’s another ghost across the street with unfinished business too, one who poofs away upon realizing personal closure was that business. Maybe ‘C’s’ actions are some manifestation of longing or regret. Maybe his frustrations watching ‘M’ move on are what we feel in life upon discovering there are always more endings than beginnings. But do we ever care about him enough to let these themes rise above the bloated, self-important musings of Oldham? No. Maybe it was the snickering of those in my theater, but I could never invest in ‘C’ as more than a prop to witness the humanity of those he watches.

I saw his rudimentary construction as a means to strip away importance. We’re also voyeurs watching a revolving door of occupants within the house he never wished to leave during life. This place had “history”. It had meaning as more than wood and glass. And his staying didn’t have to do with ‘M’ as much as the ever-progressing world she too would one day leave. But it’s not long before realizing he’s meant to be the star. How he reacts to what’s happening is what I “should” invest in. His stillness in the background of a very long scene where ‘M’ gorges on a whole pie is the point—his inability to console her, his being the cause of her sadness, and his knowing she cannot stay much longer.

Sorry, but that’s not interesting. It renders everything he sees inconsequential—casualties of his being unable to retrieve a note that may not even mean anything to him. The way Lowery presents it, however, is glorious to see. The way time progresses without clear delineations is worth a watch itself. I only wish there was more than visual wonder. I wish I could find greater meaning beneath a façade that ‘Prognosticator’ reveals as the hollow thoughts of people too weak to see reality. So many tell me A Ghost Story brought them closer to God; its artistry resonating on a level that opened eyes to personal truths. All I saw was evidence that life leads us towards oblivion. I guess I’m the pedantically pretentious windbag at parties too.

[1] Scene from A Ghost Story
[2] Rooney Mara
[3] Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck

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