A Ghost Story

July 22, 2017

a-ghost-storyGiven the revival of Malick since the late 90’s, it’s no surprise that there is a generation of American independent filmmakers who seek to ape his lyrical, gorgeously shot style to such a degree that it has almost fully supplanted the rough-and-tumble, dialogue-heavy post-Tarantino style of the 90s.  American indies are nothing if not given to trends.  David Gordon Green arguably got the ball rolling with his (still) stunning George Washington, followed by a handful of varyingly successful continuations on theme until he found his current niche in stoner comedy.  Others have come since, and one of the standouts both for good and bad reasons was David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, it’s haughty title belying both its lyrical imagery and ponderous tone.  It wasn’t much more than something to look at – a tale of subdued outlaws in early 20th Century Middle America – and listen to, thanks to Daniel Hart’s memorable score.  I missed Lowery’s well-liked foray into big budget filmmaking, Pete’s Dragon, but here he is with the typically smaller follow-up, A Ghost Story, featuring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in a white sheet with black eye holes.  A person’s reception that kind of affectation will likely color the viewing experience as a whole – Lowery does little to undercut it, and that would likely be the least of concerns for those who can’t, for lack of a better phrase, get with its vibe.

Less Malick (save some cosmic themes and galactic interludes) and more Slow Cinema (Reygadas came to mind), A Ghost Story begins with long takes of Mara and Affleck’s relationship, hinting at some discontent and showing a lot of quiet affection.  The slow cinema style continues for a fair amount of the film, and it makes one wonder if Lowery feels that an edit is something to hide behind, as though the longer you hold on a static shot, the more bare the emotions are.  Either way, it isn’t necessarily the case, but one of the impressive aspects of the film is how, if you can stick with it, there’s a thematic resonance to these early passages.  Almost as though they are, in retrospect, quite navel-gazing and narcissistic.  Much has been made (as much as anything has been made of such a film) of Mara’s extensive pie-eating sequence, and though it overall left me cold, as the movie goes on and events in the house and around it through longer and farther stretches of time and the pacing picks up, it feels almost like a critique of Affleck’s character’s initial obsession with such tiny moments.  Of course, that’s an interpretation, as the movie seems to be suggesting a kind of thematic declaration with an extended monologue from Will Oldham about the pointlessness (or lack thereof) of all endeavors in the face of eventual human extinction. 

I’m not completely convinced Lowery’s film reaches the total emotional pitch he wants to meet his heady themes, but it’s a solid stab.  If you can stifle the eye rolls – and I wouldn’t blame you for a second if you can’t – there’s something moving about not just certain images (something these American Indie filmmakers excel at), but the overall experience.  It says a lot that for someone clearly enthralled by Malick, I got the faintest sense of Don Hertzfeldt at times.  It’s a step in the right direction.

-M

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