This review of A Ghost Story was originally published on January 24th, 2017 as part of The Verge’s Sundance Film Festival coverage. The film, which hits theaters this weekend, remains one of our favorite films of the year.
The first thing you will hear about A Ghost Story, director David Lowery’s indie follow-up to last year's Pete’s Dragon reboot, is that Rooney Mara spends five minutes comfort-eating a pie. Or maybe the unedited shot lasts 10 minutes. Or 15 or 20, depending on who in the audience you’re asking. Whatever the case, it feels interminable, like a test of the viewer’s indie film commitment, daring them to shift, clear their throat, uncomfortably laugh, or just grab their jacket and leave.
But A Ghost Story, which premiered this week at Sundance, rewards patience. The “pie scene,” which feels initially like an act of cinematic self-indulgence, becomes a crucial point of reference, like a constant in a complex equation. A Ghost Story is a film about, among other things, the passage of time. How it slows and quickens; how it contains us.
(Fair warning: light spoilers ahead.)
What's it about?
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a young couple (no character names are given) who move into an old Texas ranch home. Affleck likes the place, Mara doesn't; they grow bitter. One night, something slams on the living room piano, and the spooked pair take comfort with one of the longest depictions of gentle smooching committed to film.
Then, Affleck dies in a car crash just outside their house.
The man returns as a ghost, draped in a heavy morgue blanket that covers his body and drags in his wake. Through hand-cut eyeholes, he watches over Mara as she grieves — with pie, house repair, a second attempt at love. But after she leaves, Affleck lingers behind, confined to his haunted house.
That’s when A Ghost Story and Affleck begin an exponentially paced cosmic quest toward self-completion.
What's it really about?
Love, regret, grief, gentrification, civilization, the heat death of the universe — with its 87-minute runtime, A Ghost Story is both so small and so incomprehensibly big that you could argue it’s about practically anything and everything. The film is ripe for hot takes and undergraduate film dissertations; I look forward to its wide release.
Some will say it’s pretentious, obtuse, and masturbatory, and they’d be able to find plenty of evidence. But there’s so much to love here, largely because the film is something of an inkblot. Concealed and mute, Affleck the ghost acts as a cypher on which to place one’s hopes, fears, and closely held suspicions about the meaning of life. (Affleck’s history of alleged sexual harassment has made him a difficult actor to watch and identify with; removing his voice and image is one solution, I suppose.)
The film itself is practically void of dialogue, minus a few sparse words at the start, an extended sequence in Spanish, and one monologue that delivers the film’s metaphysical logic through an inebriated mouthpiece. With so little said, the camera drifting from one dramatic suggestion to the next, the viewer is left to spackle the walls of the proverbial house, filling in gaps with their own memories and ideas.
Like I said, for me A Ghost Story is about time and age. Watching Mara cry and gorge on pie for 10 minutes (or five or 20) is slow and emotionally taxing. But once Mara leaves, an entire week — and then years — and then unknowable leaps of time pass with a sigh, the hum of one moment bleeding over another.
How long does a spirit wait for peace? I won’t dig into the answer, but I will say the film suggests a solution that’s weirder and riskier than you’d think from a movie about Casey Affleck dressed as a cheap Halloween ghost.
But is it any good?
Look, A Ghost Story won’t be everybody’s slice of pie. Under an hour and a half, it’s not asking for a serious commitment. But like Affleck’s ghost lurking around the house, watching A Ghost Story can cause one to lose their bearing on the span of a minute or an hour. It’s slow. A number of people walked out of the Sundance screening we attended. But with an afternoon viewing, a cup of coffee, and an open mind, the film has a good shot at burrowing into the brain of the viewer, where it will haunt them for much longer than its runtime.
What should it be rated?
Update: We guessed right. The MPAA rated the film R for “brief language and a disturbing image.”
I think a few characters swear, so even though this movie could be PG, it will probably land an R. Maybe that’s for the better. Energetic kids should be barred from all viewings, not only because they will spoil the film for grown-ups and super-cool teenagers, but because it’s a movie about death and an unspeakable grief and come on, kids have enough to worry about.
How can I actually watch it?
Update: The film opens in theaters on July 7th.
The film was produced by A24. It doesn’t currently have a release date, though it could release in late October as the rare Halloween / Oscar movie double play.