Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 25, 2017)
Fresh off his Best Actor Oscar for Manchester By the Sea, Casey Affleck returns with 2017’s A Ghost Story. C (Affleck) and his wife M (Rooney Mara) live together outside Dallas.
A struggling musician, C abruptly dies in a car accident. However, this doesn’t end his existence, as he turns into a “ghost”, one who dons a sheet equipped with the requisite two eye holes. C attempts to cope with his status as well as help his grieving wife.
Boy, that synopsis sure makes the film sound an awful lot like 1990’s megahit Ghost, doesn’t it? Honestly, I never really considered any similarities until I wrote the summary, as the two offer very different experiences beyond their superficial plot similarities. In both, ghosts can manipulate their environments, but that’s about all they have in common.
Whereas Ghost packed a fair amount of emotion, action, comedy and drama, A Ghost Story delivers a lot of… not much. Clearly influenced by Terrence Malick’s languid style of storytelling, Story offers an exceptionally slow journey. This seems to work for many viewers, as Story got consistently excellent reviews.
I have to admit that I think critics sometimes overrate movies that give them something different, a factor I believe played into the praise for Story. It came out smack-dab in the middle of summer blockbuster season, a time at which most critics probably felt a need for a movie that lacked tons of bombast and product placement.
In this case, though, I think critics went too far in the other direction and overpraised Story solely because it offered such a contrast with hyperactive “tentpole” movies. Slow to an extreme, Story packs little movement or development into its running time.
Its brief running time at that, as Story spans a mere 92 minutes. Given that lack of cinematic real estate, one might expect a fairly tight narrative here.
One would expect incorrectly – really, really incorrectly at that. Story offers a nearly static tale that eventually progresses in its own quirky way, but it never threatens to create an involving experience.
Writer/director David Lowery’s sense of pacing becomes clear early when we get a long romantic dalliance between C and M. Don’t expect fireworks, though – in a scene that lasts nearly three minutes, we just see them kiss a little and fall asleep.
No, I don’t feel bitter that the film avoids sexual gymnastics, but I think this sequence offers a terrible use of running time. While it conveys a sense of casual closeness between C and M, it doesn’t add much, and the fact it runs so long makes it a liability.
Expect more of the same the rest of the way, as Story loves long, long, long scenes with little apparent purpose. Ever want to watch Rooney Mara eat a pie for five and a half minutes? If so, you’ll be happy with this flick.
As for me, I think 90 seconds of pie consumption would stretch tolerance, so the choice to let this segment ramble so long becomes perplexing and damaging. We get it: M remains lonely and despondent after C’s death. We don’t need so much self-indulgence to make that point.
All of this wouldn’t be so bad if the movie came with some form of real emotional or spiritual payoff, but it doesn’t. We get some vague notions of the afterlife and such concerns, but the film lacks depth and doesn’t explore any of these domains well.
Sheetless Affleck only appears in maybe five minutes of the film’s running time, so the rest offers him in obscured fashion – if we assume Affleck really was the one under the sheet. He seems “method” enough that I’m sure he was, but face it – anyone could’ve played C through much of the movie, so the decision to use him in such an unchallenging role feels like a perverse prank.
Not that Mara expands her cinematic horizons either. She eats pie and looks glum – that’s about it. 90 percent of my ex-girlfriends did that!
A Ghost Story writes spiritual and emotional checks it can’t cash. Sluggish, pointless and pretentious, the film goes nowhere.