Tedium Sets In Early In David Lowery's "A Ghost Story"

It’s a rare thing for a movie to find true celestial beauty in the mundane. For such an occurrence, see Jim Jarmusch’s recent “Paterson,” not David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.” Jarmusch’s 2016 film is an unusually lyrical one that doggedly pursues and ultimately captures the art inherent in everyday life – like a lightning bug in a mason jar. As for “A Ghost Story,” its aim is as off as its execution, reducing big, existential questions to Oscar-winner Casey Affleck (“Manchester By The Sea”) moping around in a bed sheet.

It’s as disappointing a follow-up to the filmmaker’s magnificent “Pete’s Dragon” remake as could be imagined: A halfhearted retreat from studio filmmaking that results in an oxymoronically small-scale drama with movie stars. Affleck and Rooney Mara (the same two stars that headlined Lowery’s breakthrough “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) lead, guiding the picture from intimate portrait of death and grief to a series of increasingly desperate lunges at profundity. The latter is its true form. Instead of shedding new light on what it means to live, love, and lose – a worthy goal, to be sure – it amounts to an uncommonly ponderous hour and a half that goes off like a glib film student’s magnum opus.

Take, for example, the film’s inescapable centerpiece: A ludicrous 8-minute sequence of Rooney Mara eating pie. Affleck’s character, recently deceased, spies on his still living beloved, looming behind her in his white sheet with two cut eyeholes. Mara stabs at her pie with a fork for eons, with Lowery presumably just off-camera scaling mostly untraveled peaks of cinematic self-indulgence. Maybe the writer-director is toying with his audience. But more likely, he thinks watching a grieving woman eating pie will afford us some unknown insight into pain. It does not.

There is a painterly beauty to the movie, particularly when Mara exits and Affleck is left to haunt his abode’s new tenants. Even when Lowery’s narrative instincts desert him, his visual eye remains true, treating us to dozens of memorable shots. Yes, even Casey Affleck in a bed sheet carries an intrinsic poetry with it. When Lowery resorts to aping the spacey visuals of Terrence Malick’s similarly laborious “The Tree Of Life,” “A Ghost Story” is still a pleasure to look at.

But to experience? The imperiousness of the pie scene runs thick through the movie’s blood, rendering it inaccessible to all but the most rabid – and broad-minded – of cinephiles. Lowery hasn’t made a bad movie, but he has made an enormously maddening one – one that climaxes in a dense monologue about the futility of human existence, because of course it does. Alternately stuffy and silly, condescending and naïve, “A Ghost Story” is the work of a filmmaker conflating his biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses. It’s not quite a pie in Lowery’s face, but it’s dangerously close.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 7, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
MPAA Rating: R (for brief language and a disturbing image)