guest review: uncomfortable yet satisfying, “a ghost story” is a must

The following review is an amazing guest contribution from Eric Smith. He is an avid film lover from Michigan who was kind enough to give us his thoughts on this intriguing film.

A24 has quickly become one of my favorite studios, dropping just months earlier one of my favorite movies of 2017, ‘20th Century Women.’  I’ve realized I need to throw myself further into their catalog because their second release of the year, ‘A Ghost Story,’ has been simmering in my mind since I watched it well over a week ago.  This movie is definitely not for everyone, and I think there’s a few factors for that, but if you can stick it out I promise you’ll be rewarded with one of the most deeply emotional movie experiences I’ve ever witnessed.

The two principal characters played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are beautifully acted, but they definitely are not the stars of the film. I would actually argue that David Lowery’s writing and directing take center stage. The cinematography is beautiful, but unlike ‘Dunkirk’, the emotional connection you feel with the characters never wavers as a result.  Is it horrible to say this is likely my favorite C. Affleck performance and we barely ever see his face? Probably.  I imagine there’s a large margin of people who actually prefer him this way anyway. *sips tea*

We start with the couple, C and M (I had to look this up, I am 99% certain we never see or hear their names in the movie) in their home sharing an intimate evening together. The vulnerability of the scene shines through when they crawl back into bed after investigating a loud noise and we linger on them embracing and comforting each other to sleep.  It feels strange to watch the couple share this moment for so long, but it becomes much appreciated once we cut to C’s fatal car accident. Now, the subsequent twenty minutes are where we began to have several viewers leave the theater.  In the moment I was irked, and I allowed myself to have doubt that the film would keep its remaining audience; I’m happy to say that I was wrong.

The first of these two scenes has M visiting C’s body in the morgue. After she departs, we linger on the body for well over a minute, before C sits up as a newborn ghost under the sheet. This moment elicited some laughter from the audience, and my friend and I looked at each other as if to say “Did any of them even watch the trailer?”.  The ghost wanders the hospital, eventually coming to a door of light in one of the hallways. C seems to consider it for a moment, before deciding to turn away with the door closing behind him.  We then journey back with the ghost to their home, to see that a friend has dropped off a pie and a note for M. If you had to eat a whole pie on your own, how long would it take you? Five…six minutes? Put that in movie time, and it’s almost excruciating how uncomfortable it is to watch. M cuts pieces from the pie initially, but you can see her slow descent into grief set in as she begins to eat it, realizing she’s alone. Standing one minute, she’s on the floor the next, slowly eating her pie and sinking ever lower into her pool of grief. Five or six minutes may not seem like a long time, but in a movie it’s astounding how lasting it feels. All the while, C’s ghost is standing in the background watching his wife helplessly.

I realized that many viewers may have walked out just by how generously uncomfortable this sequence was. We like to see grief on screen, get those good cries out, but they’re always dramatized in a way that we get relief from the plot or the dialogue, something else that we can focus on.  Here, as we watch M eat her pie alone, with nothing but her tears and her fork hitting the plate, we are forced to bear witness to grief at it’s most pure form. I get almost emotional writing this, looking back on just how raw the scene is. There were many around us in the theater who began to chuckle and laugh, fidget in their seats, and ultimately leave because in a way, they just didn’t want to deal with the gravity of what they were seeing on screen. None of us do. All of us in the theater felt the pain of the ghost, being helpless bystanders to a tortured scene of a wife’s grief at its most intense state.

So if you left the theater during this scene, I forgive you. I forgive you because no one know’s how to handle those situations, and it was so authentic and honest that you’re left just holding out for some release from what’s happening on screen.  I would argue that the idea of release from grief is the central theme of the story we are presented here.  The second and third acts follow C’s ghost on his own journey of grief, seeking out answers and holding on for something that by the end he doesn’t even remember anymore. We travel into the future, we travel to the past, we see families come and go, buildings rise and fall, all just waiting for the end.  Not the credits of the movie, but the end of the ghost’s pain and longing as he doesn’t recognize the world around him anymore.  When it finally comes, I couldn’t help but audibly sigh to see the ghost disappear from under the sheet.

I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A for the movie after the screening, and what seemed to stick out to most people was what it all meant in terms of the afterlife. Was it all cyclical? Was it all meaningless? Some curtly pointed out that anybody other than Casey could have been under the sheet and we would have been none the wiser. I’m of the opinion that the beauty of the sheet is that you could imagine the ghost as anyone, anyone who would have stayed behind. I couldn’t help but thinking while watching of my recently departed grandfather and if he may have stayed behind if he had the choice.  And if he did, if he had to experience the same sufferings as C’s ghost, if he had to witness my grandmother or my mother in their darkest moments of grief after he passed.  And if I had the choice, would I choose to linger as well?

At the end of the 92 minutes, there are many things that you can take away from ‘A Ghost Story’, but if you stick it out I promise you that one of those things will not be regret.

Final Score: A

Editor’s note:

Eric Smith is a delightfully nerdy guy from Michigan with an incredible taste and an amazing beard. Funny, thoughtful, and incredibly political, he has a voice that is necessary and valued by this humble blogger.

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