A simple commentary on loss is buried inside a pretentious coffin.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a nameless hipster couple in a small southern town who are torn apart when Affleck is killed suddenly. A fractured timeline follows that shows moments from the couple’s fraught relationship and the fallout after his passing including a scene where Mara identifies his body. After she leaves the morgue, his body sits up on the examination table and, still covered with a white sheet, proceeds to walk out of the hospital unnoticed, now a silent, voiceless ghost.
His sheet-covered figure watches in silence as Mara moves through her grief process. In one scene, Mara’s character receives a pie as a post-funeral gift from a concerned friend and in one, long uncut shot, she sits on the floor, eats half the pie and finally runs to the bathroom to puke.
It was during this scene (one of many uncut, single-take shots) that I began to sour on the film. I assume these moments were supposed to be meditative but when you have to watch them in real time, they’re frustrating. The writer/director, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon), was also the editor and, in the end, I think he does his film a disservice by indulging in these pretentious art school impulses.
Don’t get me wrong. I went to art school and I have a high tolerance for these kinds of narrative devices. I’ve admired examples of this type of filmmaking before, most notably with the films of Michael Haneke. But Lowery doesn’t even come close to Haneke’s level of filmmaking – mostly because he lacks the details and mysteries that Haneke puts inside his frame. There’s nothing to watch during A Ghost Story’s long takes other than the most obvious action in the center of the frame. Perhaps I would feel differently if I were in a dark theater and I wasn’t able to click ahead with my remote (but probably not.)
Other residents occupy the house after Mara’s character finally moves out. Affleck’s ghost actively haunts the house as an unsettled spirit, terrorizing a Spanish-speaking family as well as a group of hipster musicians that includes musician Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) who has an extended monolog that philosophizes about the ephemeral nature of life. This ham-fisted section may as well have come with blinking, neon letters onscreen that say “Insert Theme of Movie Here.”
In the end, the unpredictability of Mara’s post-loss behavior is the most satisfying part of the film. Too often, grief is trivialized in movies and exploited for audience’s sympathy. Not here. We definitely feel bad for her, but Mara’s character doesn’t waste a lot of time crying on her friend’s shoulders or drowning her sorrow in alcohol binges or other general acting out; except for eating that pie.