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VOL. 41 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 11, 2017

A haunting tale without the usual frights

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In “A Ghost Story,” characters played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are awakened one night by a heavy bang on their piano. They investigate but find nothing.

A horror film might have used this scene to introduce a terrifying supernatural entity and place its protagonists in mortal danger. But “A Ghost Story” isn’t a scary movie. Rather, it’s a supernatural drama intended to haunt rather than frighten viewers.

“A Ghost Story” contains a number of horror movie clichés: things that go bump in the night, flickering lights and closet doors opened by an invisible hand. But writer and director David Lowery uses these common devices not to jolt audiences out of their seats but to suggest the emotional state of the film’s central character – a ghost named C.

C begins the film very much alive. A struggling musician, he lives with his wife, M, in an aging suburban house.

After a car wreck claims his life just outside their residence, he remains in the house as a ghost as years pass and other people make their home there.

Despite the use of horror film tropes, no one will mistake “A Ghost Story” for a scary movie, largely due to Lowery’s direction. Instead of using fast cuts and loud noises, the director employed long takes and silence to suggest the slow but relentless crawl of time and shunned otherworldly visual effects in favor of draping a bedsheet over Affleck for the duration of his time as a ghost.

The costume is so low-tech, it comes with black eye holes, like the ones cut into Charlie Brown’s bedsheet in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

I kept expecting C to gaze down into a paper bag and say, “I got a rock.”

Then there’s Lowery’s decision to shoot “A Ghost Story” in the boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio, which The Hollywood Reporter noted is rounded off at the edges to make the film look like an old home movie. (Picture the film taking up only the middle third of a screen.)

While I initially found this off-putting, when combined with the graceful movement of the camera throughout the movie, it fosters an intensely intimate viewing experience.

But the thing that will test the patience of most viewers are the long takes, whether it’s watching C lie covered on a coroner’s table for several minutes before rising as a ghost, the lengthy shot of M hauling trash to the curb, or the nine-minute take of M eating a pie.

You read that right: “A Ghost Story” contains a nine-minute shot of M shoveling pie into her mouth. While this might sound pointless, artsy or self-indulgent, as M devours the food in big, tearful bites, we come to understand the depth of her grief.

What’s more, this and other scenes involving long takes emphasize the magnitude of time and how insignificant we are within it.

As “A Ghost Story” unfolds, it explores this and other themes with remarkable elegance. The ideas made the greatest impression on me included the pain of loss and the difficulty of letting go of the past.

Lowery allows these themes to bubble up on their own.

Likewise, except for a scene in which a party guest launches into a nihilistic discourse on the futility of searching for meaning in a universe that will eventually collapse on itself, his writing never tries to force anything on viewers.

“A Ghost Story” grew on me as I watched it and has stayed with me since my viewing. Despite the use of minimal dialogue, it tells a poignant, emotional, cleverly constructed story that comes full circle to the bang on the piano, and regardless of its low budget approach, it contains some of the most beautifully conceived, meaningful imagery in a film this year.

Above all, if you have the patience to embrace its quirks, you’ll find that it’s malleable enough to serve as a mirror to your own thoughts and feelings about love, life, the passage of time, the search for meaning and more.

Like all good art, it encourages you and enables you to see yourself in it.

Perhaps that’s why “A Ghost Story” continues to haunt me.

3.5 stars out of 4