From the very first scene of A Ghost Story, when the aspect ratio starts (and stays) a resolute Polaroid box shape – complete with rounded off edges – it is clear that director David Lowery has a distinct vision for us. If only there was something with which to fill it? This is A Ghost Story in the most mundane sense, and deliberately so. Rather than scares or spooks, the question is asked: if ghosts exist as memories of people – what do they do?
Linger, is the answer. Linger and watch. This isn’t ghosts in the traditional sense. This is clearly a man under a bedsheet with eye holes cut out. And indeed, that alone makes for a haunting image. When our departed musician ‘C’ (played by Casey Affleck) sits up off the gurney and appears to look around, after a 2 minute shot watching his sheet covered corpse, this isn’t played for scares.
No-one can see him and he doesn’t speak. Man and sheet walk with slow, fluid listlessness, unbidden by anyone or anything, until he ends up back home to stay for years unspecified. The ghost itself is very effective in its simple, sad, movements. Not at all scary, but simply lost. This is definitely not Ghostbusters!
But even before this the movie is so slow as to not move anywhere at all. The first 10 minutes pass within only three scenes. ‘C’ and ‘M’ (Rooney Mara) are a couple living together in a one-story house heavy with history. They talk about moving and leaving memories behind, M spends several minutes moving a heavy box outside. After a brief scare startles them awake they settle back in bed. And Lowery really wants you to see that. All 4 minutes of it. There are soft kisses, gentle caresses, and the reality of a couple settling in for the night. All very realistic, and with lovely cinematography, but really necessary to see for so long?
I can tell you that the exact moment that A Ghost Story lost me was at 28 minutes in. Mara’s ‘M’, trying to cope with the sudden death of ‘C’ does some washing up, checks the bin, and starts eating a pie left by a neighbour. The whole pie. Forkful by forkful. And it just keeps on going. This is a scene lasting 8 and a half minutes where 5 of those minutes is an unbroken shot of her eating the whole pie. Whilst ‘C’s sheet covered ghost watches, unmoving.
And while the arty side of me can appreciate that how her clattering of cutlery (and eventual dashing to the bathroom to vomit) is the true reality of loss – emptiness, despair, displacement – the film watcher in me is just utterly, utterly bored.
From then on I enjoy moments of the film whilst mentally spinning thumbs throughout the languid pace surrounding them. There is no denying that the movie is beautifully shot and has a soundscape so sparse that any noise at all pricks the ear. The framing of each shot and silent presence of a sheet covered Affleck make for a deep sense of ennui. When ‘C’ notices another ghost (also covered in a sheet) in a window of the building across the sheet and they communicate in subtitled silence, the confused quasi-camaraderie is palpable. And as time marches on and an office block replaces C’s home, his silent gliding around the newly constructed offices connected with me. What happens to memories when no-one is left to remember them?
The movie features a truly beautiful piece of music that ‘C’ plays to ‘M’ in an attempt to communicate his feelings. It’s haunting in another sense and due to the mostly silent nature of the movie it shines out in the moments it is used. But this countered by a 10 minute long conversation at a party about the hopelessness of existence. That the universe will expand and die with utter inevitability. All very thematic, but delivered at a length far beyond one which can be reasonably called ‘engaging’.
No matter how much atmosphere and mood you are trying to create, if you can cut 45 minutes from a film without noticing then that film is too long for the story it has to tell. A Ghost Story would have worked excellently as a short film. But as a feature length? That’s what gives you an unbroken 5 minute shot of a women eating pie. No amount of skill behind the camera or underplayed subtle acting is going to fill up that empty room.
Words by Michael Record