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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


A Ghost Story (2017) starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara

Ghosted out of a relationship

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple who live in a home in an American suburb. They are regularly rattled by strange noises, at one point including a mysterious keystroke sound on their piano. One day, Casey’s character perishes in a fatal car crash outside their house.

After he is confirmed dead in the hospital, his spirit rises from the operating table covered in a white sheet with two holes to see out of. As he walks through the building’s corridors, neither patients nor doctors seem to notice his presence. He is a ghost. A bright, glowing doorway opens up in front of him at the end of one of the corridors, but he doesn’t step through.

He returns home and watches as his former partner deals with her grief. While it initially seems that he is helpless in getting through to her, he discovers that he has powers to manipulate the environment, including causing lights to flicker and for objects to fly off shelves. He also spots another ghost in the window of his neighbour’s home, who seems to be attempting communication with him.

Watch a trailer:

Can’t give too much away

A Ghost Story might live up to its name by featuring a ghost as its central focus, but it’s certainly not a supernatural horror film. For one thing, it takes place from the point of view of the ghost itself rather than those haunted by it.

It is hard to review without giving too much of the story away as part of what makes it so unique is the unexpected direction that it takes. There are wider themes about a cycle of human experience that’s endlessly in motion - prefigured in an extended philosophical monologue which one character spouts, and then borne out by the arc of the story. On the other hand, it should be clear to the viewer right from the start that the very style of the film is anything but conventional.

It’s shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio similar to TV or silent movies. This nostalgic touch ties in well with the overall wider themes of time - as well as the fact that dialogue, while present in many scenes, is usually deemed so unimportant to the film’s narrative technique that it is frequently rendered almost indecipherable to the listener. The conversations between Casey and Rooney’s characters early on are softly mumbled, establishing the intimacy they have together but only partially letting us in on what they are actually talking about. The dim visual ambience is the more important communicative device here; it establishes that there’s something unhappy in the air, but it doesn't become clear without continuing to watch the film. During a later part of the story involving a Hispanic family, their Spanish dialogue isn’t subtitled. Again, the visual ambience (much sunnier and brighter in contrast to the earlier scenes, as they reflect a joyous family occasion) takes precedence.

Snapshots of life

Many scenes are represented by near-static tableaux, where other films would employ something staged in an infinitely more dramatic manner. For example, only the eerily quiet aftermath of the pivotal car crash is shown. A later, rather mournful pie-eating scene is shot in one take from middle distance over the course of several minutes. Again, there’s an eerie sense of quiet that articulates grief infinitely more effectively than any amount of histrionic acting could ever convey. In both cases, there’s a sense of these playing out as La Jetée-style stills, which dually convey the helpless distance a ghost stands from those around it, and the way in which events dissipate into mere snapshots in the cycle of time.

A ghost with a linen sheet

It’s an intensely image-based movie; the notion of a linen sheet ghost costume representing real spectres might seem cheesy, but it has been turned into something truly lyrical here. Again, the frequently static or slow-moving on screen presence is well-framed within shots to make such an ostensibly absurd visual conceit fit in naturally with the style of the surrounding imagery. There are some more slightly sophisticated special effects introduced during a few occasions, which stand in such stark contrast to the restraint seen elsewhere that their introduction is quite startling.

It is also an intensely thematic movie which occasionally borders on science fiction in some of its story points and visuals. As well as La Jetée, there are hints of 2001 and Blade Runner here. How do they figure into the story? Well, you have to watch to find out. It’s a rare thing: a quiet, modest film which successfully communicates thematic ambition far beyond what most filmmakers (who tend to think inside of an established narrative toolbox) could conceive as possible. A must see.

Runtime: 92 mins

Dir: David Lowery

Script: David Lowery

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kesha

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

Where is it showing in Edinburgh and Glasgow?

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