You know those stereotypical indie films? Ones light on dialogue and heavy on portentous messages about life and death? Usually starring two well known indie actors? Perhaps shot in an artistic boxy aspect ration? Yep, that’s A Ghost Story in a nutshell.
Stereotypes aside, A Ghost Story does genuinely convey some heavy concepts in visually engaging ways. It tells the story of a man, played by Casey Affleck and named as “M”, who unexpectedly dies and returns to his home and widow (only named as “C”, played by Rooney Mara) as a white-sheeted ghost. Yes, like a literal Halloween-costume ghost. Covered in a sheet with two holes cut out for eyes. It’s an enjoyable visual gag and a good way to inject a little fun into an otherwise very serious film. As M struggles to comprehend his new reality, he watches what live looks like without him. He intimately sees C grieve his untimely death and explores what it means to live as a ghost.
The film has very little dialogue and director David Lowery certainly likes to take his time. The slow pace, often accompanied by droning strings, can be mesmerizing as well as frustrating. For instance, the film has an entire scene (made legendary when it premiered at Sundace) of Rooney Mara eating a pie after going to M’s funeral. Out of grief, she shovels more and more pie until it makes her sick. While a poignant look at the effect of grief, you can’t help but to think, “Is this really still going?” as you sit in a dark theater and continuously watch a woman eat pie. At the same time, the slow pace matches the ghost’s melancholy perfectly. With nothing to do but observe the world around him, the ghost feels stuck in the same way the narrative does.
A Ghost Story gets increasingly abstract in its second half and has an annoying party scene break full of dialogue that feels jarring when it’s surrounded by so much silence (also Ke$ha is there). As it continues on and works in broader strokes, the slow pace takes its toll. Just like the ghost’s life, it starts to feel unending. With such bare bones plot to work with, plot holes stand out like sore thumbs. As the ghost tries to resolve the issue that’s keeping him there, he seems to ignore simple solutions to this conundrum (ignored, I’m sure, to tell more story). Affleck and Mara, in their limited roles, do admirably. But honestly, once Affleck becomes a ghost, how do we even know that’s actually him under there? I mean, the ghost just spends most of the film standing still.
A Ghost Story casts a mesmerizing spell and hooks you with its creative visuals and intriguing concepts, but simply runs too long to keep its audience engaged. It feels better suited for a short film instead, conveying the same ideas without so much stretched time.