A Ghost Story (2017)
It is no spoiler to say there is nothing to be afraid of in this film. No blood to be seen, no jumps out of your seat. That could mean many supernatural and paranormal film fans will stay away, but they would be missing one of the most unusual and thought-provoking films seen in years. If you can look past the costume party white sheet with jagged eye-holes, you will find A Ghost Story (2017) to be a haunting reflection on grief and what lies beyond the last heartbeat.
Although it has an unsettling timeline, the story itself can be pared down to a few simple elements. We enter by eavesdropping on a young couple who are packing to leave their modest home. Known only as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), she is keen to leave, he wants to stay. What happens next messes with our notions of time, space, death and beyond. Within seconds, we see him dead at the wheel of a crashed car. We watch her identify the body then walk out of a morgue. The camera remains fixed on the sheet until it slowly sits up. We follow it back to the house where it can only watch M in her stunned grief, unseen and unable to reach her. In a series of rapid time compressions, she packs and leaves, and is replaced by a procession of other families until the house becomes derelict and abandoned. All the time C watches alone. After a bulldozer flattens the house and a high-rise is built, we go back to when the property was an open prairie where a family of 19th century settlers are slaughtered by natives. C watches them decompose, still riveted to the place he too died. He returns to the time and place of his death to see himself and M arrive in their new home.
This unusual story unfolds from the viewpoint of a ghost. Once you are OK with that premise, everything else begins to make sense, depending on what you invest in the experience. When you let go of the usual paranormal genre tropes, you sense that ghosts occupy space without temporal boundaries and they do no harm. You also realise that cinema itself has conditioned our notions of linear time and physical place. Nobody has been there to report back, so who can refute the circularity of time after death? Nor do we know if ghosts can materially connect with the living or if they simply ‘belong’ at the place they became.
This low-budget high-risk film is one of the most innovative you will find in its genre but opinions are clustered at the extremes. Despite having a stellar duo in Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, acting makes a limited contribution to what this film achieves. The silent Affleck is mostly under the sheet and Mara is brilliant for the time we see her. There are no CGI tricks and the film is shown through a round-corner square screen that is retro low-tech with editing and pace to unnerve you. Patience and faith are both needed and rewarded. The unbroken five-minute take of M sitting on her kitchen floor devouring a pie with C watching helplessly is a painfully exquisite portrait of transfixed grief. Surviving that scene can be a portal for a tale from the timeless beyond.
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
A USA production