SPOILER ALERT: This is one of the more unique films I've ever seen. I will discuss key parts of the plot, so I encourage you to watch the film before reading this review. Do be aware that this is a slowly-paced film that asks for a great deal of patience from the viewer. But that patience is rewarded.
I must be honest, early on while watching A Ghost Story, my patience began to wane. There are many shots that are held for extended periods of time. The dialogue is sparse, and there is one scene where we watch Rooney Mara's character eat an entire pie in real time. To some, that may not sound like their idea of a good time at the movies. But this film's pacing is a choice, and it offers a big reward for viewers who will have patience.
A Ghost Story focuses mainly on two people - a married couple played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. We only know them by the initials M and C. We see them early on in scenes of domestic peace. But there is also a sense that there are spiritual occurences happening within their home. A noise wakes them up in the middle of the night and C (Affleck) goes to check it out. He lingers by the piano and says something must have fallen on it.
The story takes a turn when C is killed in a car accident. For the remainder of the film, he lingers as a ghost in their home, watching M deal with her guilt and loneliness. After a while, she moves out, and the film begins to play with time. Therein lies the key to experiencing this film.
At various points, we see shots that showcase the passing of time. One example is when we see a family of settlers from many years ago get murdered by their stagecoach. In the next shot, they are rotting corpses, then skeletons. Then you have the elongated scenes - most notably the "pie scene" - that make us as the viewer supremely aware of the passing of time in another way.
All of this serves the purpose of getting us to the place where we can consider our relationship with time. We all will die. That is an unfortunate fact of life. Can we do or create things in this life that will truly outlast us? What kind of impact can we have in the grand scheme of time. A monologue from a man at a party initially seems to answer those questions. But I think this movie has other intentions.
One of the connecting motifs through the many passages of time is a note that M leaves for C before she moves out. She puts it in a small crevice in a wall before painting over the hole. C, as a ghost, tries to scrape away the paint and retrieve it. But the house is demolished before he can. He then goes on his journey through time to attempt to get back to that moment. Finally, he does, and we are connected to the early scenes.
However, we as the audience never see what the note says. I like this choice from director David Lowery, as we only really need to know that the ghost got what he was looking for. The whole storyline of the note in the wall resonated emotionally with me on an entirely different level, as well.
One time when I was in college, I came back to my dad's house - the house where I grew up. I happened to go downstairs for something, I don't quite remember what. But while I was down there, I found one of the old model rockets that my dad and I used to work on together. One of the wings was broken off. I wrote a note and placed it in the box with the rocket. I wasn't writing to anyone in particular. I just had some things I needed to express. It was a prayer of sorts.
In this film, I don't think M believes that she is writing this note to C. Maybe I'm misreading the film, but I don't see anything that tells us she knows that C's ghost is there. There are moments when it seems that she notices the ghost's presence, but I don't really think the note is her actually writing to C. I think she's just writing this note to put it out there. To say what she needs to say and heal to the point where she can leave.
I mentioned that my note was a kind of prayer. I believe in God, and I believe in some kind of life after death. While this film is obviously dealing heavily in the spiritual realm, we can't quite be sure of what is has to say (if anything) about the nature of that realm. I didn't see any acknowledgment of God or some other higher power, but I also think there is room for the viewer to find that if they choose. Are the ghosts we see in this film ever transported to heaven or some other existence, or do they simply vanish once they have reached the clarity they seek? I honestly do not think this film answers those questions, but decides instead to leave things for interpretation.
I think that is a powerful choice, because none of us really knows what awaits us after death. As I said, I believe in God. I also believe in heaven and hell, but I have no idea what they look like. I have my own beliefs on what might be true about the afterlife, but I am not certain. No one living is. I think this film is getting us to the point where we will think about these heady topics and acknowledge that the possibilities are endless. At the end of the day, I personally rest in the fact that God does know what awaits me, and I can leave that in His capable hands.
So, in light of that, are we naive if we think we can create something or be a part of something that will truly outlast us? If this film does offer an answers to the big questions it opens up, I think it is this one. No, that is not naive. We should try to communicate and connect across time and space. We should try to leave a legacy.
We should try.
A few quick notes about the cast and crew. I think the most praise should go to Lowery as the director for his crucial choices in bringing this story to life. Both Mara and Affleck put forth their usual quality performances. And cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo is also worthy of specific praise for many impressively crafted shots throughout the film. Also, the movie's music (by Daniel Hart) is fantastic, and I've been listening to the score on Spotify ever since I finished the movie.
As I said at the outset, it is impossible to bypass the fact that this is a slowly-paced film. It won't be for everyone, and that isn't meant as a critique. Not every film should be for everyone. In fact, there's probably no such thing as a film for everyone.
But for those who will sit in the story that this film depicts - for those who will live in it a bit - this film has a massive ambition that can transport the viewer to a powerful place. For any film to do that is an incredible achievement.
Note on content: The aftermath of the car accident that kills C is shown, but it is not gory. As his ghost goes back through time, there is a scene where a family of settlers are killed. The act is not shown, but the aftermath is somewhat unsettling. There is no nudity, however the characters are shown kissing in bed and M is shown wearing only a bedsheet as they later investigate the noises in their house. There is minor language. Overall, the content in this film is quite mild.