"A Ghost Story" (2017) Review
So, how do you articulate that you ultimately like a movie, but admittedly have problems with it, but want to emphasize that you'd definitely recommend seeing it while you can?
Well, I'll try to explain the best way I know.
Writing these reviews serves two purposes. The first purpose goes without saying, it's to put my opinion out there in a way that the public can (hopefully) appreciate. The second purpose might not be as obvious. The process of writing these reviews, the self-reflection, calling on my knowledge of other films, the pauses between typing to recall the film being reviewed, is often the moment where my thoughts become clearest about a movie I'm trying to think critically about. It's one thing to joke among friends about something you just saw or to discuss, it's something completely different to try and write out coherent sentences and convey some kind of critical point about a film.
This is all a fancy way of saying that A Ghost Story left me questioning how to best tackle a film like this. A Ghost Story sounds like the kind of film I'd like on paper, a mediation on love, life, death, and observers throughout time all with a supernatural twist. It's actors are all wonderfully understated, the cinematography is clean, simple, and subtly ambitious, and on top of everything else the film is largely dialogue free, clearly experimenting with visual storytelling.
And somehow, it all feels a bit... Off?
Perhaps it's the lack of context in its story. The story is fairly simple and has a minimal set-up. A couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, live in a house. They love each other. Affleck's character dies in a car crash. Mara's character tries to move on as Affleck's ghost, a literal white morgue sheet with two holes for eyes, follows her around. Until she leaves, and the story continues as the ghost watches his "home" change around him.
Not a ton happens in A Ghost Story, but that's by design. Some shots last for several minutes at a time, and the shot won't move. This is where the expert composition work comes in though, making these quiet drawn out moments beautiful. And while some of the shots feel like they go on just a bit too long, they eventually pay off and sometimes in surprising ways.
The biggest issue with the film though (besides an odd long monologue part of the way through the film that almost seems to contradict the movie's own thesis) does come in the form of that aforementioned context. It's really difficult to not spoil literally the entire final sequence of the film without getting into my issues with A Ghost Story, but let's just say that the film deliberately holds back context for Affleck's character that makes it harder to connect with him early on. Rooney Mara seems to carry the most emotional weight on her shoulders and she exits the narrative about a third of the way through. It feels like this movie was literally a handful of emotional beats from being a devastating indie darling. Instead, it's a fascinating experiment.
Now, I know I just wrote a bunch of negative sounding stuff right there, but I want to emphasize just how well other parts work though. It's amazing how much emotion the white sheet ghost manages to convey without saying a word. There's a great character they managed to leave out of the trailers and marketing materials, so I won't give that away here, but it's a fantastic addition to the film. Also, a sequence involving "shot-reverse shot" left me stunned in a way that I could never have anticipated along with another sequence where the film actually leans hard into ghost tropes to create a powerful moment.
The other thing I do want to say though to contextualize this review is that I tend to thrive on information in a film. Trust me, I love a slow deliberate film with minimal camera movement that's beautifully shot. One of my favorite movies I've seen in recent years is Jia Zhangke's The World, released in 2004. It's over two hours long and some scenes last north of five minutes without the camera cutting or moving once. But it delivers a ton of information about its characters and the environment they live in, so much that it actually becomes hard to keep track of The World's main character. A Ghost Story thrives on depriving information, and I think I'm coming to learn that I'm not the biggest fan of that kind of story.
To be fair, I want to see A Ghost Story again. There are definitely reasons to re-watch it considering how it ends and I might get more out of it the second time. The fact that I'm even willing to entertain that thought after having so many mixed feelings about it should speak volumes. This is a difficult movie, experiential, gorgeous, weird, and legitimately challenging. I guarantee that at the very least, you will not see an American film with this kind of distribution that's remotely like this all year, and maybe for years to come. It's fiercely unique, possibly to its own detriment, but that might be a more respectable fate than most.