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Haiku Review: ‘A Ghost Story’

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Nobody could have predicted it, but here we are: a weird little indie made for $100,000 toppled ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ at the box office last weekend. How? Who? What? Say goodbye to your loved ones, children, and join us in a communion with the dead.

A-GHOST-STORY-via-A24

Casey Affleck dies
Existentialism lives
Letting go is hard

That’s not really a spoiler, by the way, Casey Affleck dying. The call sheet for ‘A Ghost Story’ listed just two actors (Affleck and Rooney Mara) and a bed sheet — one of them had to wear it, right? These are performers already adept at playing figurative ghosts; playing a literal one isn’t the biggest stretch.

After dying in a car accident, Affleck finds himself…well, becoming a ghost. His mortuary sheet becomes a spectral shroud, his modest South Texas rancher a haunted house, and his wife, Mara (she’s “M” in the credits; he’s “C”. The names aren’t important) the bereaved widow struggling to move on. Until she’s compelled to leave. Which is when this nitrous-fueled little tone poem really kicks into second gear.

You could be forgiven, really you could, for assuming ‘A Ghost Story’ is in fact one more unnecessary competitor in the Sad White People Movie Olympics. (Think: ‘Manchester by the Sea’, ‘Rabbit Hole’.) It meets ALL the requirements:

— grief
— tears
— elegiac, non-diagetic choir music
— lengthy takes of people doing mundane things, like eating
— Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara

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On paper, this movie looks like it should come with a free therapy session and (small) cup of frozen yogurt. There’s no way it could be as surprising as ‘The Lobster’, as captivating as ‘Moonlight’.

AND YET.

‘A Ghost Story’ is not about the grieving person left behind, like most SWPMs, or even our Lego Ghost’s personal post-life experience. He’s a ghost! At best he knocks over a few bookshelves, stares at shit while those people he’s haunting say “hmm, a breeze.”

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Those stills — they’re goofy, right? Any unearned gravitas (a hallmark of the SWPM genre!) is undercut by the fact that we’re watching a grown man capital-A Acting from underneath a last-minute Halloween costume. I’d never call this movie “funny” in the vein of, like, ‘Step Brothers’, but it’s got a self-awareness to it — think ‘Her’ — that turns what might have been an ostentatious moment into something familiar, sincere.

And it’s self-awareness that allows ‘A Ghost Story’ to assume its true form, and get away with the kind of shit we typically reserve only for Terence Malick, and maybe Pema Chödrön: ruminating on the very nature and purpose of existence.

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Plot is such a…workaday conceit, don’t you think, when you’re taking in the whole of the cosmos?

A ghost’s purpose, within the confines of this movie, is to wait. Forever. For what? A more convenient afterlife narrative would specify, but writer/director David Lowrey gives us no clear answer. Maybe Rooney Mara will become a ghost too? Maybe one day they’ll have ghost children? Maybe there are better bed sheets, with a higher thread count, waiting on the Other Side?

You (me) cycle through questions like these for a while, convinced that even an opaque arthouse movie like this one has to provide some narrative warmth. But when it doesn’t, and we’re — SPOILER, for real this time — catapulted beyond the Affleck-Mara of it and into new homeowners, weird parties, demolition, commercial property development, the terrifying whirr of the imaginable future and the impossibility of the past…

In one of several key distinctions between ‘A Ghost Story’ and ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’, things get a little nihilistic.

Affleck plants himself to one spot, his own haunted house, while the world changes and grows and rewinds around him. Minus a plate smashing or two, he can’t do anything about any of it — just watch. Even his ghost mitten hands are too formless to grasp something like, say, a note Mara has left in a crack in the wall…

Then you (me) sit in the theater having dumped all those earlier questions about ghost babies and thread counts, their empty spaces filled with totally new questions:

  • What’s the point of any of it?
  • Am I making the most of what little (corporeal) time I have on earth?
  • Can we break the cycle, escape these haunted houses of our own making?
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Dude, you’re bumming me out

No one with optimal serotonin levels would ever describe this movie as light, but in its own long-take, discomfiting way I think it offers the same sort of litmus test as ‘Eternal Sunshine’. You can look at Joel and Clem’s reunion as naive, stupid — things are gonna happen Round Two exactly as they did Round One — or you can think hey, maybe this time things will be different. ‘A Ghost Story’ practically begs you to consider everything you’ve just seen — all 90 minutes of it — as inconsequential, an inherently meaningless blip on the cosmic, human-neutral timeline.

…Or maybe it’s not?

 

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