Last week in this very space, Zack Shlachter wrote about David Lowery’s latest film and the sexual harassment allegations against its star, Casey Affleck, in an article bluntly titled “Why I Won’t Watch A Ghost Story.” I don’t have to make such decisions because I watch everything, regardless of what unsavory business its makers have been accused of. This may strike you as an easy way out. In a way, it is. Then again, I’m in the privileged position of not paying for my ticket (so the filmmakers don’t get my money), and my platform here gives me a duty to tell you what I think of the film and how the possible unsavoriness affects that. To that end, I’ll say that A Ghost Story, like Lowery’s previous films, is surpassingly beautiful. Unlike his previous films, though, it doesn’t quite work for me.
The movie begins with a nameless couple (Affleck and Rooney Mara) discussing whether to stay in their old house in the woods somewhere. He’s later killed in a car accident right in front of the house, and when she goes to the hospital to identify the body, his ghost — wearing a bedsheet with two eyeholes like a kid’s Halloween costume — winds up following her back home. She eventually sells the house and moves out, but the ghost stays there, coming unstuck in time and seeing the history of the place from the mid-19th century until the far future.
The touchstone here is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2011 film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, an animist Thai masterpiece that Lowery wrote about rapturously on his blog. In both movies, the denizens of the spirit world are both uncanny and somewhat ridiculous, and I’m afraid Weerasethakul does a better job of toeing that line. The bigger issue is that Lowery is trying to free us from time just like his spirit has been freed, but that translates to a lot of static shots of the couple sleeping in bed together or the now infamous one of the woman sitting on her kitchen floor and eating a chocolate pie brought by a neighbor, downing half of it before she throws up. The slow rhythms and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s lyrical shots of the mist rolling past the house are meant to achieve some sort of transcendental, timeless ecstasy. Occasionally they achieve that, but I must admit I was bored more often than not. The movie’s squarish frame, meant to recall older films, seems like an affectation, too.
Whether you can separate Affleck’s alleged misdeeds from the characters he plays or not, this movie does make that job remarkably easy, since the actor is under a bedsheet and mute for at least 90 percent of his screen time. The latter may be why I found it hard to sympathize with this ghost with no facial expressions and minimal dialogue (rendered through subtitles). Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper made more effective dramatic use of a ghost this past spring. A Ghost Story boasts a terrific score by Daniel Hart and a lovely moment at the end when the ghost finally comes to rest. It remains a failure, though a fascinating one because it’s so unusual and borne of the filmmaker’s ambition.
A Ghost Story
Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Written and directed by David Lowery. Rated R.
Correction: This article originally stated that Casey Affleck was accused of sexual assault. The actor was accused of sexual harassment. Fort Worth Weekly regrets the error.