The Cougar Reviews: ‘A Ghost Story’ can be touching, but suffers from overused trope
Young adult novels are often written with flat, uninteresting protagonists. The likes of Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc. are often the least interesting characters in their story so that the audience can project themselves onto those characters.
They’re a blank slate. And while it’s interesting to discuss the ramifications of this trope, the need for characters and stories to be safe and impersonal in order to gain mass appeal is fundamentally a flawed method of storytelling.
It’s a form of warping the medium’s vocabulary to elicit a reaction that is often unearned, leaving these works that are often varied and colorful with a hollowed-out core.
“A Ghost Story” suffers from this exact problem. “A Ghost Story” can be beautiful and touching; its sequences evoking tidal waves of emotion held back only by Rooney Mara’s incredible performance. But this intentional vagueness, this haziness that the story has keeps the viewer at an arm’s length in spite of this.
The story, as little as there is, follows a man who dies young and remains unseen in the house he shares with his wife. The viewer isn’t even told the main characters’ names, with Affleck’s character, the ghost, being credited as “C” and Mara’s character being credited as “M.” There’s a pervasive mundanity to the movie that’s handled well.
Characters are often sitting in silence for long stretches of time. It demonstrates patience in telling the story it wants to tell well. Many people point to M eating a pie for six minutes as a demonstration of this, but it’s hardly a one-off.
According to Cinemetrics, the average shot length of this movie is 10 seconds, which is significantly higher than most movies other than some experimental dramas. It’s also shot with an Academy ratio with vignette-style rounded edges to the frame. The commitment to a specific visual style is absolute.
The movie feels almost voyeuristic a lot of the time, with the camera seeming like more of an intruder peeping in on someone’s life rather than perhaps a character in the show. While it would be inaccurate to say that certain other movies break the fourth wall, this movie has an unnatural commitment to its fourth wall.
Plenty of other movies lean into the artifice of the medium, making meta-jokes and commentaries, skipping forward in time so as to not dedicate time to irrelevant events, blocking that’s designed around the camera.
Movies are so often tightly scripted around the presence of a camera and the audience as if they’re a character in the proceedings. “A Ghost Story” does not make the same choice. Instead, nothing the characters do feels catered to an audience. It doesn’t feel designed around the viewer, it feels immediate and real.
When I watch a clearly constructed movie like a Fincher movie or a Rian Johnson movie, I can see the moments where what’s happening onscreen is for the benefit of the audience. The shots and ideas used are a shorthand form of getting a larger concept across. “A Ghost Story” goes in the opposite direction, refusing to engage in shorthand and existing as a sort of feature-length short film.
In spite of this, “A Ghost Story” feels like a shell of a movie. There are only 12 minutes of getting to know the main characters’ relationship before C dies in a car accident and the subsequent meditations on grief feel all the less poignant because the viewer has not gotten to know these people.
At the end of the day, for the viewer to engage with these characters emotionally, they have to know how the characters think and how they behave.
Instead, characterization is kept to a minimum, with each character, particularly C, the main character, being a blank slate. All the long, meditative, intimate shots in the world can’t make up for a lack of characterization.
Another issue I had with the film was the score. I loved Daniel Hart’s score in concept, and the score certainly had its moments, but the movie felt like it was designed without one. As a matter of fact, it was cut without a temp score of any kind. Hart’s score feels tacked on as if it were an afterthought.
David Lowery is quoted by Verge as saying, “I try to get the movie working without any music because it’s easy to hide behind your score.”
Unfortunately, I feel the movie falls into that exact pitfall, relying on the score to carry the emotion instead of trusting the footage.
“A Ghost Story” is bold and refreshing and one of the most unique movies to come out in the past decade. I hope other filmmakers take note of Lowery’s masterful direction and Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography. And Rooney Mara’s subdued performance is criminally underappreciated.
But the movie, unfortunately, falls flat and fails to engage with the audience in the way that it’s clearly trying to. A real shame, because it had so much potential.