I sincerely regret not seeing A Ghost Story while it was in theaters. I mistook it, as I think a lot of people did, for something trying to be a bare bones horror story, which I wasn't interested at all in seeing. Only months later did I stumble across a page for this movie and see the cast, and begin to be interested. Rooney Mara has been showcasing her talent in recent years fairly well, and I've always been a great fan of Casey Affleck's, so if for the cast alone I became interested. Now that I've seen it, I truly am sad that I missed out on the theater experience. Going to a movie theater, for me at least, is a chance to isolate oneself, to shut out every distraction, to concentrate everything on only the movie, so that you may get a fuller experience. A Ghost Story is the kind of movie that benefits greatly from a viewer's full concentration.
Among other things, the first thing that anyone will notice about A Ghost Story is it's numerous bold artistic choices, principle among them being the frame that accompanies the entire movie. It's narrower than normal widescreen, with odd rounded edges, as if every moment is an old-timey picture. I think that this is an intentional comparison, as it gives the film a difficult to describe nostalgic feeling, as if we're watching something painfully familiar, a memory that lingers in the back of our minds. This aspect ratio, along with the soft lighting, gives the movie it's ethereal atmosphere that helps fuel the rest of the film. Numerous long takes are another tool used by the director here. Not the technically impressive sort of show-offy long takes that we sometimes love to gawk at, but very uncomfortable ones. Minutes are spent watching M (Rooney Mara's character, who we only know by her first initial) sitting on the floor eating a pie as she silently cries, with the ghost of her husband watching the entire time, unmoving and out of focus. It lends a vulnerability and honesty to the film, and gives an uncompromising look at the pain infused in every frame. It holds you and doesn't let go, it doesn't give you the relief of looking away from the raw hurt, you're forced to face it and deal with it. It gives you time to process exactly what you're watching and time to understand the realness of it. This also ties into the fluidity of time the film, and how even a single take can seem to take place over a several day, week, or month long period. The titular ghost wanders through the home as life takes place around him. He simply watches, observes his wife deal with her grief, live her life, and eventually move on. Time passes in leaps and bounds, seasons change, people come and go, even the landscape itself changes, but the ghost remains.
The ghost is perhaps the most unique component of this movie, one that has a chance to completely polarize viewers. Casey Affleck spends about 90% of the movie underneath a bedsheet, with only two perpetually black eye holes in it. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the movie to me, how a viewer approaches such a character, one that rarely displays emotion, has no real dialogue to speak of, and barely even has a face to emote with. We tend to project our own feelings onto such a character, or maybe it's in their very subtle actions that one can truly read emotion. Perhaps it is the blankness of the ghost's face which is what we're supposed to be seeing here, the hollowness of grief and how it wordlessly follows us wherever we go. The ghost is driven by obsession, decades after his object of affection has left. His feelings have surely faded, but all he knows of himself anymore is his desire, his obsession, his pointless search for closure. Depression, pain, hopelessness, all expressed in a blank slate of a face, two bottomless black wells where eyes should be.
A Ghost Story is the kind of movie that's sure to frustrate some. There are many that prefer the films they watch to have real stories, to have solidified characters, plot lines, etc. I think this is completely fair, and although I disagree with this assessment, there are plenty of people that find movies like A Ghost Story to be pretentious and far too meandering to be of any merit. People who dislike this movie are completely entitled to their opinion, because movies like this aren't meant for everyone. Since Last Year at Marienbad, dreamlike, ethereal movies without concrete plot structures have polarized critics and audiences alike, because different people simply want different things from the movies they want. However, I think that as an artistic endeavor, as a movie-going experience, A Ghost Story excels in what it attempts to do. It may not be the first film to express the ideas that it does, but it tackles them with a unique enough way that I feel it has more than justified it's existence and it's merit.