Saturday, 16 December 2017

Movie Review: A Ghost Story (2017)



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The plot: C (Casey Affleck) has been killed in a car accident. Coming back as a ghost, still covered in the sheet that he was left with at the morgue, he returns to his house where his wife M (Rooney Mara) is struggling to cope with her husband’s death. As C learns that he has become more detached from the real world than he first realized, he is forced to come to terms with his own fate and the regrets that are keeping him in this world.







Rather than going into a rundown of the cast as per usual, I went to delve into the film’s main concept first. Mainly, how it under no circumstances should work. I mean, between the extremely kitsch design for the ghost and one of the production companies attached to the film being called Scared Sheetless, this so easily could have devolved into a bad experiment. And yet, that main idea sticks without any real effort required. Not only is there an explanation for this in-universe, turning the sheet over the ghost into a grim reminder of the body it was once attached to, Casey Affleck ends up bringing a lot of character to it without any dialogue. The eyes-cut-out face always had this sense of melancholy to it, and Affleck’s slow shuffling across the set feels like he’s just drifting through the real world. Like a ghost, fittingly enough.

This is also aided by the film’s visual style, which I’m finding difficult to put into words without just explaining what is shown. As such, I will do exactly that and give a specific example that ends up setting the tone for the rest of the production. After C dies, we see M in the kitchen. She unwraps a pie and, for the next five solid minutes of screen time, we get a single unbroken shot of her sitting on the kitchen floor, eating the pie. After the roughly five minute binge-eating session, she immediately runs to the bathroom and throws up into the toilet. Now, as kooky as this sounds on paper, it ends up leaving a weird effect on the audience, one that only becomes clear as the film goes on. What this, and many other similiarly-paced scenes, are here to do is to keep the audience aware of the passage of time. Whether it’s C and M cuddling in bed or the aforementioned pie-eating, these scenes are shown in a deliberate way meant to make us aware of the fact that we are seeing all of it, possibly more so than is necessary. Because this is how we perceive time: In a singular, forward direction without the outside assistance of editing to cut out the slower moments.

The ghost of C, on the other hand, doesn’t see the world this way anymore. Instead, we see the world through his point-of-view as being shuffled, with days and even weeks passing by in a matter of moments and witnessing the distant past being as simple as walking into another room. One of the most common ghost story tropes is that of ‘unfinished business’: The matters that the ghost was unable or perhaps unwilling to resolve in their lifetime, so their spirit lingers around trying to resolve it in another life. That well and truly is at the heart of this film, as it takes our silent protagonist (save for some subtitled conversating with another ghost, played by Ke$ha… yes, seriously) through a rather painful process of letting go of the proverbial chains that tie him to this plane of existence. Even as the story goes beyond just her interactions with M and goes into both the past and future occupants of the land, you get that sense that C should not still be here… and yet, because of his unwillingness to shift in life, he is unable to even in death.

This is all rather compelling stuff, if slightly goofy at times, but… I can’t lie: I found this near-impossible to really get into. Having seen director/writer/editor David Lowery’s last film, the recent Pete’s Dragon remake, I was honestly thrown for a loop at how artistically inclined this production is. After learning that Lowery has worked with filmmaker Shane Carruth of Looper and Upstream Color fame, Lowery having co-edited the latter, this film’s style started to make sense. Unfortunately, it also made more sense as to why I wasn’t that into it. Even though a lot of this film exists for atmospheric purposes, focusing more on mood than anything else, the pacing involved in going from moment to moment is painfully slow. This film is barely over an-hour-and-a-half, and yet it felt like this thing was taking days to get through. I’d joke about how this was all totally intentional and meant to mess with the audience’s sense of time as much as the main character’s, but that would be underselling films that manage to do that concept better than this. Films like Arrival, which toyed with non-linear storytelling to highlight just how much film editing inherently screws with the perception of time, or the adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five, which featured a character also detached from the regular flow of time. I also don’t feel like making jokes at the film’s expense because, unlike other incredibly slow films that end up rubbing me the wrong way, there is genuine merit to be found here. Just not enough to make me think that my time was well-spent watching it.

All in all, this will likely come down to a matter of personal taste (more so than usual, at least) but I’m not too happy about this one. The acting can get really good, the mood of the story is impeccable set-up, and the way Lowery both textually and visually plays around with ghost story archetypes is quite interesting to read into. However, as I’ve stated in reviews past, I’m not big on slow films. Quite honestly, with very few exceptions, this is one of the slowest-moving things I’ve sat through all year and no amount of subtext is enough to make me engage with it because of that. It ranks higher than My Cousin Rachel, as this film’s flaws aren’t nearly as objective; I may not entirely agree with the critical consensus on this, but I can at least understand how it affected so many people as strongly as it did. However, since personal engagement has always and will always factor into how films get ranked on this blog, this ends up falling short of My Pet Dinosaur. Yes, this film is a thousand times better in every technical regard, but I left this film feeling rather empty. Whether it was through rage or even sheer idiocy, I kept up with the hilariously inept trappings of Dinosaur and I might even consider watching it again for yucks.

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