A Ghost Story review

Casey Affleck stars in David Lowery's A Ghost Story. Here's our review...

I don’t like giving out spoilers, and I do not write the kind of reviews that read like a detailed synopsis of the movie – and that is unfortunate because it is difficult to explain why I liked A Ghost Story without using either approach. My advice would be to go see it without reading any reviews, but if you absolutely want to read about the movie before seeing it, here goes.

Fresh off the success of his Disney blockbuster Pete’s Dragon, David Lowery goes back to his indie roots to deliver this moving exploration of love, loss, regret and closure in the wake of death. A Ghost Story reunites the stars of Lowery’s breakout indie movie, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. The setting of A Ghost Story is fantastical, just like Pete’s Dragon’s, but the two movies couldn’t be more different.

Anyone who casually glances at the poster or reads the log line of A Ghost Story could prematurely conclude it’s just another romantic comedy with a bit of the supernatural thrown in – like a new take on Ghost – but they couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not a supernatural thriller or horror movie either. It may not be the first in a new sub-genre, but it’s definitely unique, blending drama and the supernatural in a convincingly nostalgic package reminiscent of home movies. As such, it will not please everyone, but I cannot encourage everyone strongly enough to go see it.

Without giving anything away, the film is the story of recently deceased C (Casey Affleck) who returns as a white-sheeted ghost to his home and bereft wife, M (Rooney Mara). While he can still move a few things around and mess around with the lights, C can do very little but watch as his wife goes through the various stages of grief and ultimately moves on, leaving behind her husband’s spectre that is bound to the home that he was reluctant to leave even in life. While even the ghost in the house next door finally finds sufficient reason to move on, C becomes ‘unstuck’ in time, and he is forced to experience both the past and the future, seemingly stuck to the spot where his home was built. 

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A Ghost Story will try the patience of many viewers, especially of anyone expecting a horror or supernatural drama. While some people might be out after watching sheet-covered Affleck stand around for minutes on end, or Mara’s nearly 10-minute pie-eating moment, others will be enthralled by such scenes. Lowery appears to be obsessed with time, sometimes stretching moments to near-infinity, other times compressing lots into the blink of an eye. While that may seem to be a sign of poor pacing or bad editing, A Ghost Story tells its story remarkably well, and time’s apparent changing nature only serves to strengthen the emotions the movie wishes to convey.

This brings me to the overlong shots of sheet-covered Affleck just standing there, or walking through a doorway (Lowery is also obsessed with doorways); some might think the Oscar-winning actor’s talents are wasted under a ghost costume, with nothing but the blank, depthless stare of cutout eyes to express emotions, but they would be wrong; Lowery’s usage of the sheet combined with pacing and editing are where A Ghost Story truly shines.

A long time ago, I remember having a protracted conversation with Return Of The Jedi director Richard Marquand on the challenges of making emotions show through masks – particularly, Darth Vader’s. Marquand insisted that emotions did show through, and in a quick-paced action movie with dialogue, it’s relatively easy, but in A Ghost Story, where Affleck spends the better part of his screen time with a blank sheet over his head with almost no dialogue, it’s quite a feat and a credit to Lowery’s direction (and Affleck’s acting skills) to keep the viewers riveted to that rudimentary childhood Halloween costume.

The last time I saw a white-sheeted ghost on the big screen was in Richard Bates Jr.’s Suburban Gothic where Matthew Gray Gubler and Kat Dennings used the makeshift disguise to immediate comedic effect. But this is different. There is no such humour here, and that is apparent the moment Affleck’s ghost rises from the morgue table, covered by the sheet that had been thrown over his dead body.

The emotional effect of the sheet works in great part because of how the scenes are set up. Lowery sets the mood so that by the time Affleck walks onscreen, the viewers are already primed, not for what is about to happen onscreen, but to project their own emotions unto the blank form of the ghost.

As such the sheet becomes much more than a mere prop – it’s a narrative device, a blank canvas on which the viewers can splash their own emotions. While denial would seem to be the foremost emotion that can be attributed to a ghost that refuses to move on, viewers are free to project a wide palette of emotions on the blank canvas of the ghost’s form. Of course, Affleck’s skills as an actor also contribute to the effectiveness of the ghost as a narrative tool, but there are scenes where Affleck is not even under the sheet.

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A Ghost Story is shot like a home movie. The almost square aspect ratio with rounded corners reminiscent of home movies from the ’70s, the colours not unlike the Kodachrome palette of said home movies, the bare essential cinematography – all those elements contribute to the nostalgia and breath of real life of A Ghost Story. Personally, it made me nostalgic. The movie feels very personal, which ultimately makes us relate more easily to Affleck’s character, even though he no longer really is human.

A Ghost Story is not unlike a quiet, very slow-paced walk through the various galleries of an art museum, best to be appreciated in quiet introspection and solitude. That sounds sad, and the movie will likely move you to tears, but by the end, it’s likely you’ll feel you’ve seen something very special too.

A Ghost Story is in UK cinemas today