By Jack Dignan
Of the many films I've seen at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and the few I have left to review, the one I feel I need to talk about the most is A Ghost Story. This is a movie with a lot that needs to be taken in, and the overall experience of watching it has left a lasting impression on me. Ever since it's Sundance premiere earlier this year, the film has been on my radar. It's managed to maintain my curiosity, furthered by a stunning trailer. I needed to see this movie. And I'm definitely glad that I did. Forget genre conventions. You're not going to find those here. This is a strange and original movie that you need to see to believe.
A Ghost Story is more of an experiment than it is a plot-driven film. Writing a synopsis is challenging. There's not an awful lot to it. We have two central characters; both of who remain unnamed the entire film. IMDb lists them as M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck). They're a couple madly in love, often embracing each other in endless hugs, but their seemingly perfect relationship takes an abrupt stop when C is involved in a fatal car crash that results in death. His death. C soon comes back as a white sheeted ghost, trapped in a nonlinear plane of existence and forced to watch as time passes and life continues without him. People come, people go, and C remains exactly where he's always been.
It’s a film that explores the complications tangled throughout love, loss and time. As C watches M struggle to go on without him, he's confronted with a past long gone. Their relationship is pulled apart and examined, revealing problems, mistakes and heartfelt resolutions. It's profound, obscure and intellectual, raising so many questions through a complicated, convention-breaking plot. It examines existence as a whole, divulging away from the relationship between C and M and branching off into a much bigger picture. C struggles with his newfound state of being. It's like an itch he can't quite scratch, and while the character is devoid of dialogue, you can often tell exactly what he's thinking.
Director David Lowery makes a very deliberate choice to frustrate his audience. We're put through the slumps of existence, and it can be infuriating as an audience member. You're with these characters every step of the way, and sometimes those steps are slow and drawn out. He puts the quieter moments of life right into the spotlight. The technique is successful in its attempts at drawing you in and creating a whole-body experience, but the decision will turn a lot of viewers off. This and Song to Song had the two biggest walk outs of the festival. So many moments are drawn out and lengthy, often to needlessly extended degrees. I understand its importance and plot relevance, but can't avoid the feeling that this premise would work better as a half an hour short film than it does a 90-minute movie.
Most of this is apparent in the film's first act. It's when this film is at its weakest, which is unfortunate due to the fact that it's when the always-fabulous Rooney Mara gets most of her screen time. Shots are long and uneventful, and the plot gets off to a halt before it's even begun. One moment in particular stands out for a number of reasons. When returning home from identifying C's body, M discovers a pie on her bench, left there by a friend. She eats it. But not only that, we get to see her eat the entire thing in a single, uninterrupted shot. It is, no joke, five minutes long. The shot is both the greatest thing I've ever seen and the most boring. It never ends. It should've ended, but it doesn't, and it clearly resonated with more than just myself as I've overheard so many different conversations about it while waiting for movies to start.
Yes, A Ghost Story sounds like it should be the most boring thing ever, but it's not. Certainly, this film isn't for everyone. My friend didn't like it, and it's safe to say the same goes for the magnitude of audience members who stormed out, but once the story starts to come full circle, it all comes together quite nicely. It's increasingly enjoyable as time goes on. The entire thing wraps up perfectly in an incredible, if not slightly abrupt third act that delves into somewhat of a time loop and poetically takes the film to unexpected, most welcome places. Even my friend said to me afterwards "if the whole film was like the third act, I probably would've enjoyed it more."
While not eventful to begin with, there's beauty within the boredom. The costuming and set design is simplistic and effective, and the fact that C walks around in the most clichéd ghost design possible just adds to the overall uniqueness. Andrew Droz Palermo's camera work, presented in an aspect ratio no films dare to do, is stunning. Every shot is a work of art, full of camera depth and lush, lively colours. The pallet he works with is basic and drab, but he makes it work to the film's advantage. He crafts up the single most beautiful imagery you could possibly tell this story with. It's often reminiscent of a silent film, so the camera needs to do a lot of the speaking, and Palermo owns this movie.
The biggest disappointment I found with A Ghost Story is that it suffers majorly from being overhyped. Since it's premiere in January, the film has been hailed as some kind of masterpiece. It's a good movie, yes, but a masterpiece? Not quite. It's fresh to have a movie experience quite like this one, but the film better suits a short format than a long one. I wish I loved this movie. I went in expecting to love this movie. Sadly, it just misses the mark.
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