David Lowrey’s minimalistic and minimally budgeted A Ghost Story is aimed squarely, and unapologetically, at the indy market and audiences looking for anything resembling a typical horror movie will be massively disappointed. The ghost in question here literally wears a bedsheet for nearly the entire movie – I wish I were making that up. The bedsheet is the point though, a gimmick in search of a movie.
Make no mistake – this is no remake of the similarly named 1981 Ghost Story based on the Peter Straub bestseller. That movie, directed by John Irvin and starring Craig Wasson, Alice Krige, Fred Astaire and John Houseman, among others, was a big budget affair marketed for a wide audience.
In Lowrey’s movie, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a young couple identified only as “C” and “M” in the end credits. That artsy little touch should be enough to the have the Saturday night popcorn movie crowd running for the door. The otherwise unnamed couple are apparently in disagreement over whether or not to move. M wants to move to somewhere more modern and less isolated, while C, a songwriter, feels a strong attachment to their current home, a painfully nondescript single-story that came with an old piano. Other than having their sleep disturbed once by a sudden (and unexplained) clang on the keyboard during the night, there’s no foreshadowing C’s sudden death.
Someone has to be the ghost
But someone has to be the ghost, of course, and C dies in a car accident fairly early in the movie. Lowrey doesn’t show us the accident – he doesn’t have the budget for it, for one thing. But that’s also not the way this movie functions. Instead he shows the aftermath in tedious slow motion. After a moment alone with her husband at the morgue, the M covers the C’s body, we are primed for the corpse to stir. When it does actually sit up, draped in a sheet, and steps off the gurney, the effect is undeniably startling. But soon Lowrey includes a nearly four minute scene, done in one shot, of M sitting on the kitchen floor, eating a pie alone in stark, solitary silence until she runs to the bathroom (seen in the background) to vomit.
The movie’s view is clearly that life is for the living, and the ghost, who increasingly seems to be channeling Charlie Brown in the Halloween TV special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, can do nothing but watch forlornly. He does lose his temper and knocks books off a shelf after an unidentified man kisses M in the doorway. Inevitably, she moves out, and the ghost is left to watch as future inhabitants, including a Spanish-speaking single mother, and a maddeningly pretentious amateur philosopher who’s kind of like the guy you dread getting stuck behind in line at Starbucks.
A meditation on love, loss and existence itself
Eventually the ghost, and the movie, are liberated from even a linear presentation of time, and we accelerate through the future and then nose dive (literally) into the past. A Ghost Story invites us to think of it as a meditation on love, loss and existence itself, but movies do not function best as meditations. This meditation, in any event, is singularly bleak, and clearly presents non-existence as the less painful alternative than an eternity of detached observation.
Are you sure it’s Casey Affleck under the sheet…?
It is also an open question as to whether or not audiences can really identify or empathize with bed linens. Once C dies, Casey Affleck’s face is not seen again in the movie, and the ghost’s only dialogue, with another sheet-wearing ghost, is delivered only via subtitles. One might be forgiven for wondering whether or not the Academy Award® winner was actually on set for most of the movie. Although the argument might be made that the ghost’s forlorn shoulder-sagging is distinctively Affleckian, it’s not convincing.
A Ghost Story has a one hour and thirty-two minute running time, but feels longer. The movie is shot in an antiquated, nearly square 1.33:1 aspect ratio – which is surprisingly distracting. Viewers who notice it may waste a fair amount of time waiting for the movie to transition to widescreen. It never does.