Word going into A GHOST STORY was it either going to be the best film I saw this year or the worst. It would all hinge on whether I accepted the idea that a ghost in the film would be a person in a sheet. I went in hoping to see something special. What I got was a film with severe problems that almost worked before it went off the rails. The ghost as sheet idea was the least of the films problems.
I will say that the film could have been something if it had been a black and white short directed by Bela Tarr. As it is now its very close to pretentious twaddle. It’s a film that plays as if it is about something momentous-but it never clues us into what that was.(what are we suppose to think or feel?)
I suspect some people are going to be rapturous, I know others are not- several people walked out of the BAMCinema Fest screening, others myself included yawned loudly, while others stared at the screen quizzically (there are dull stretches so I watched the audience). When the film ended the couple behind me could be heard saying that they were hoping Lowery would explain what they had just seen. I left seconds later because films need to stand on their own and not be explained- and the only way it can really work is not to have it explained. Sadly David Lowery is going to have to explain the film to most people who see it for them to really get it.
I need to say that at this point I’m going to discuss the film and it’s plot in detail. I’m going to spill the beans (as much as that is possible) so if you don’t want to know you should stop reading here and move on to something else. If you don’t mind knowing them keep reading.
The film concerns a couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) living in a rented house. There is some tension between them. Why isn’t clear because the sound mix is such it drives all but the sound effects and the overly intrusive score to the background (it's intentional- the director is making a point-I think). One day we find Affleck has been killed in a car crash outside his driveway. He returns as a ghost who haunts the house. Lots of time passes as he watches Mara wander around grieving and eventually get on with her life. Before leaving the house Mara leaves a note on a small piece of paper hidden in between two boards in a door jam. A new family moves in. Affleck watches them. He smashes their china. He talks to a ghost in a house next door who is floral printed sheet. Other people come. Affleck watches them. He keeps trying to get at the hidden note. The house is torn down a high rise goes up. Affleck leaps from the roof. Suddenly it's the mid-19th century he watches a family on the prairie. They are killed by Native Americans. He finds himself back in the house. He watches events play out again- this time we hear the dialog we didn't the first time. Affleck is finally able to get the note and he disappears.
Told in incredibly long takes the film frequently feels glacial. We frequently watch as things happen in real time. For example Rooney Mara eats most of pie in (essentially) one shot before running off to throw it up.
There is little dialog. Mostly the ghost stares while overdone music blasts us.
Because the film moves so slowly and is full of static shots and little direction my mind wandered and I realized the film has all sorts of plot problems:
The car accident that claims Casey Affleck's life couldn't happen the way we see it. Never mind the road is where he lives is a rundown rutted film the angle of the cars is all wrong for the street they are on. No one would be traveling fast enough or in the right direction to create that sort of accident- especially a fatal one.
How time moves for the ghost is internally inconsistent. Never mind that there is the 200 year time jump, how we move through time makes no sense as some months or years speed past while at others times we watch things in real time. We never get a sense of how or why things speed by.
I'm not sure why he can affect somethings and not others. There are times when he tries to do something but has no effect and then at other times he's knocking pictures over or tossing china
We also don't know why he is anchored to the house. He has to walk from the hospital. The reason can't be his need to see the note since the note comes a good while after he is dead. As to get back to Mara, perhaps, but why not go with her then? Of course we don't fully know what the deal is between Affleck and Mara.
Because 90% of the dialog is either mumbled, covered up the sound mix or in Spanish we never get to know either Affleck's or Mara's characters. The relationship between them is nothing but longing looks because we never really hear anything until the closing minutes of the film and events replay. How can we be moved when we know nothing? We have no sense of them as people- which means we have so sense of Affleck as a ghost. Worse we never get to know anyone's motivation-why are these people here? Why do they love each other – we have no clue.
(And I don't care that Affleck won an Oscar as best actor, it's very clear here that he is a man of limited talents and needs a better script than this to give a performance and do more than mumble)
How can Affleck Ghost be in the house at the same time as himself?
How does Affleck pull out the note and read it when within the time line when he almost has it out when the house is destroyed at a later time? What is the nature of time within the film anyway?
I think outside of the moments anything positive is the result of what people carry into the film rather than what is there.
And there are moments-
The talks with the ghost across the way is kind of haunting (despite being silly). The not remembering why you were waiting stayed with me as did the sadness of realizing the one ghost had been waiting for nothing.
The monolog about nothing having meaning because the universe will end in billions of years is really good but at the same time what the hell is it doing in this film?(That’s a question I could ask about lots of the moments) Its a glorious bleak moment that is unconnected and free floating but adds nothing to the film except running time.
The high rise bit isn't bad and the film kind of comes together for a while and until he jumps from the roof. I thought the film had come together but the jump back in time killed it. My thought was if trimmed the film’s excesses down prior and ended it before he jumps (the shot through the window is killer) you’d have a great short. (I'm annoyed because I honestly thought Lowery was pulling gold from the shit- and then he jumped into the void)
Mara listening to the song and remember hearing it for the first time was really good. I just wish it was connected to a better film where we could be fully connected to the characters so it broke our hearts the way it should have. Its too adrift to have impact even if it is a nice moment.
I do have to say that while it is not the worst film I've ever paid to see at a festival (it kind of works in fits and starts) it is for long stretches one of the dullest. This is a really clever short film stretched to feature length.
And the most amazing thing is that the sheet ghost idea isn't a bad one- it's most of the other stuff that David Lowery does with the film that does it in.
An occasionally intriguing failure, it is not really recommended except for the curious.