'A Ghost Story' Review [2017 Fantasia Festival]

There's just something inexplicably earnest about a big star doing something seemingly unnecessarily elaborate for a indie film. Putting on a mask, wearing an outrageous costume, or just generally making their job as an actor more difficult than it should be, particularly when they're not being paid their usual rate (Robert Downey Jr is great as Tony Stark, but we're not calling him an acting genius for donning the Iron Man outfit here). We're thinking more Michael Fassbender in Frank, donning a giant paper mache head for most of the film when an actor of his stature could take an easier paycheck, even for something with drama and emotion. And it probably shouldn't be that impressive. On paper it almost feels pretentious. It could be read as a major star portending to be sick of their fame, or taking on a role for a gimmick instead of the meat of the part itself. Yet Michael Fassbender's portrayal of a gifted musician with crippling social anxiety and psychological issues is one of the best of that year, because a performer like Fassbender permeates the prop and conveys exactly what the writer/director is trying to say through that gimmick.

2017 is gifting us with another such performance, as Casey Affleck, fresh off an Academy Award-winning performance in Manchester By The Sea, dons a bedsheet with holes for eyes to become the titular spectre in A Ghost Story, the latest from writer/director David Lowery (Pete's Dragon), reuniting the duo, along with Rooney Mara from Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

In the film, Affleck portrays a man who dies very quickly in the film's first act. As his wife (Mara) mourns his sudden and unexpected death, Affleck's character observes her from under the aforementioned bed sheet as a ghost, unable to be seen by the human eye yet clearly manifested with a physical presence. The ghost spends most of the movie trying to retrieve a note Mara's character leaves in the cracks of their house before she moves out, a task which takes a long time, as the ghost haunts many future tenants and different forms that the land on which the house sits on takes.

People will see the title of the film, and Affleck's character donning a traditionally spooky outfit and expect it to be scary, but while, in the director's own terms (as conveyed in a Q&A following the film's screening at this year's Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal), the film is certainly inspired in many ways by horror films, it is also purposely one of the least scary films you'll probably see this year. So while it may be horror-adjacent, A Ghost Story isn't about scares, it's not even really about tension. There is one scene which Lowery described as Poltergeist from the ghost's perspective, a couple others where the presence of a ghost is meant to be implied, butherwise, this is instead a film about fate, about love, loss, grief, about the never-ending battle between optimism and cynicism. Lowery puts these themes on display in a beautiful film which eventually comes together to engross the viewer.

That being said, it takes a while for the film to get to the point. That may be a necessary evil for a film that asks so much of its viewer with a unique and relatively bizarre premise of a Halloween costume looking for a reason to make his exit from the mortal plane. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film follow Affleck and Mara's unnamed characters living a normal couple's life. Their story is told through excruciatingly long takes and tracking shots, almost entirely within the confines of their home, and, no less, shown through a voyeuristic and almost distracting 4:3 aspect ratio, an effect purposely used as a measure of separation between the audience and the performers, like a proscenium. Lowery leans into the idea that a man donning a bedsheet for the entirely of the film as a means of conveying that he's a ghost is a ridiculous premise before the ghost is even introduced in the story. ANd quite honestly, the work he does to set it up is what eventually sells it.

But even after Affleck rises from grave (in a particularly memorable long take on his character's corpse in the morgue), it takes some getting used to. The second act of the film is another set of long takes, as the film follows Rooney Mara's grief process. There's a five minute scene where she eats an entire pie as the ghost of her husband watches her. And it works the way it's intended, but in the moment, I couldn't help but wonder what the point was. Thankfully, from there, the story actually picks up, as does the pace. But in those first moments, the deliberate snail pace of the film is detracting and distracting. The mind wanders. You think about the mechanics of keeping a bed sheet clean for the duration of a long movie shoot (for the record, the sheet gets dirty near the end of the movie), or whether or not Affleck was actually the one acting through a bed sheet, or how much pie Rooney Mara actually had to eat.

The point of movies is specifically not to have to think about these logistics. Yet, impressively, Lowery identifies this as a potential problem with the audience's suspension in disbelief, and leans into it. The inherent silliness and uniqueness of the concept allows him to get away with it the same way a play with an inordinate amount of stunts, for example. Then the film makes turns its heels, makes a switch and comes together as something completely different and engrossing.

A Ghost Story is probably a difficult film to sell for many moviegoers. It's not quite a horror movie, not quite a drama, very rarely a comedy. But it's unique, and it's extremely personal, and the talent behind it manages to bring it together.A Ghost Story gets 8.5 reverse Poltergeists out of 10.