Faced with reviewing writer-director David Lowery's supernaturally obscure "A Ghost Story," my first inclination is to ask myself, 'Why didn't I just see some nice, old-fashioned cowboy movie?' Y'know ... something about the waning days of the Wild West, where there's nothing more symbolic to scrutinize than the ubiquitous tumbling tumbleweed. How nice, how tranquil, how straightforward. But nooo, I have to complicate my life by trying to describe in normal human words a film preoccupied with no less than eternity and the meaning of life.
Were I back at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and "A Ghost Story" was the week's feature downtown at The Pretension, I'd probably look forward to the après theater challenge that surely awaited at The Hungry Brain Coffeehouse. Such opportunities for pomposity with pals were as much social as intellectual. But alas, several decades of witnessing each era's film directors' attempts to answer the universal question has made me slightly cynical. I mean hey, even Ingmar Bergman didn't uncover the secret of life.
Thus I must say, in hopefully my least obnoxious tone, that I commend auteur Lowery on the conviction required to take his generation's turn at trying to grab philosophy's brass ring. But I fear his attempt adds nothing more to the timeless dilemma that has flummoxed the greatest thinkers from Socrates to Louis C.K. As such, "A Ghost Story" is much more dissectible than it is entertaining.
But while I was mostly bored during its screening, forced to contemplate loose ends that ultimately were never tied to my satisfaction, I haven't really stopped thinking about it.
Did I miss something, or is "A Ghost Story" just the paranormal version of the "The Emperor's New Clothes?" It is my hope that by writing this review the evil spell of critical discomfort will be lifted, and I will be haunted no more. I wouldn't want this impasse in analytical acumen to become my Miss Havisham's cake.
That said, the surface plot is quite simple. A loving couple played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck living in a suburban ranch house hear bumps in the night. They also see unexplained flickers of light. There are long, long pauses, assumedly to underline emotion, like how much these two mortals are devoted to each other, as well as to represent the time continuum the saga
enters into once the title character materializes, white sheet and cut out holes for eyes. This becomes the signal for symbolism to run rampant, some of which is explained later, some not.
It's all put in motion after a devastation befalls our lovebirds. But without the benefit of either Albert Einstein or Rod Serling's opinion of how the timelessness of being might be depicted, we are put in a quandary. If we believe in ghosts, we could provisionally accept Lowery's gauzy take on the idea. However, skeptics unconvinced by his perpetration are apt to throw up their hands in frustration, chalk up the wasted ticket price, and see the wisdom of a soul-satisfying trip to the concession stand for something they can believe in, like a box of Goobers.
Still, with all those ideas about life, death, love, devotion, infinity and everything else that might keep you up at night now swirling around in your brain, the pump is primed. You want answers to stuff, like do you get to see all your old dogs when you go to Heaven? You were perfectly happy before entering the theater, content with simple thoughts like how you might build that little enclosure for your garden hose and perhaps go the extra bucks for the tire shine at the car wash this weekend. But now this can of worms has been opened and your mortality is at the fore.
While you initially welcome the good mental exercise that comes of contemplating things occult and virtually incomprehensible, ultimately the task must end or you wind up being that guy who sits at the last stool at the diner counter and just babbles on about some movie he once saw.
Which is precisely why there is an inherent problem with any film that dares tackle the imponderable. If unsuccessful in changing everything that we've come to know and understand since time immemorial, it's a failure. But aha, there is a way the artist can dodge this Catch 22.
It's called creativity. Make something up that truly captures the imagination. While the filmmaker's construct of perpetuity, fate and destiny is not without its esoteric aura, its serious, almost mechanistic conception never really gains our suspension of disbelief. Hence, because "A Ghost Story" fails to supply the quotient of fantasy one should expect in any afterlife that's worth living, my suggestion is that, until someone comes up with a better filmic representation, Heaven will just have to wait.
"A Ghost Story," rated R, is an A24 release directed by David Lowery and stars Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Will Oldham. Running time: 92 minutes
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