A Ghost Story (2017)


I watched A Ghost Story in the filled-to-the-gills Texas Theatre at the Oak Cliff Film Festival. As I hunched in the dark, nearly seated on top of the sweetest group of English teachers I’ve ever met, I was a little stunned at the size of the crowd. Even Jodorowsky’s newest film didn’t draw a crowd like this. Before the lights dimmed and the movie rolled, I took one last look around. Every seat was filled and some sneaky fire department flouting rebels were even edging into stand warily against the theater’s back wall. 

Given the recent fervor this movie has caused in the horror community (Is it post horror? What is post horror? Why should you care?) you might think this movie is something other than it is. Unlike A24’s other recent offerings, it doesn’t pull a cleverly marketed bait-and-switch like It (Doesn’t) Come at Night nor does it proudly wave the countercultural flag in its audience’s desensitized face like Green Room or The Witch. No, A Ghost Story is exactly the kind of film its elegiac trailer makes it out to be--for better or for worse. 

The story is simple. An adorable as organic apple pie hipster couple buys a cutesy fixer-upper and settles into their lives. Not long after, the husband is killed in a tragically brutal car wreck practically on their doorstep, but instead of moving on to some kind of hereafter, his rises from the morgue clothed in a white sheet. Thus attired, our heroic lost soul does all the Our Town kinds of things one might do: spies on his grieving widow, haunts the next family that moves into the house, goes on a journey across time to see the first pioneer occupants of that plot of modern day suburban land, and witnesses the house’s eventual destruction when a slick, modernist office building is erected in its place. Okay, maybe the last part’s a bit off the Thornton Wilder path, but otherwise standard ghosty stuff, right? 

Yes and no. While the second half of the film centers heavily on the otherworldly adventures of the eponymous ghost, the immediate aftermath of the husband’s death belongs almost solely to Rooney Mara’s wife character. It’s a wise choice on the director’s part. The ghost sheet at first seems too whimsical and silly to carry such a heavy meditation on a foreshortened life, but having him return almost immediately to the house where he witnesses his wife’s grief acclimates the audience to the costume. With him, we stand helplessly by while the shock of loss overwhelms Mara’s character, and like him, all we can do is stare. 

If you’ve read anything about A Ghost Story, you’ve doubtlessly heard about the “pie scene” wherein Mara returns from work and stares at the pie some thoughtful neighbor has left for her. She takes a bite, then another and another before sitting on the kitchen floor to methodically devour a huge portion of it before becoming sick. The scene is silent and almost entirely still except for Mara’s slightest movements. In the crowded bar after the showing, this was the most discussed scene.  

As someone who loves horror movies, I see grief depicted a lot--too much. Almost every spooky tale starts off with someone dying or being killed. Of course, there’s always a grieved family that slouches through their bereavement with all the believability of a tribe of anesthetized Keanu Reeves. Death is just a plot point for most horror movies, and a lot of “non-genre” films as well, when in reality, the vacuum of loss is its own universe, complete with its own slowed time, physical laws, and unexpected black holes. Sure, not every movie can take the time to dwell on the terror and emptiness of grief, but Rooney Mara taking each leaden second to eat and then vomit that pie shows something about loss other movies just magically glide over. The character’s pointless, voracious hunger is something the recently bereaved can attest to: the need to do something, anything to find comfort or fill the time. Even the resulting nausea, the way the body responds to loss in ways the mind couldn’t predict is eerily, strangely realistic. I was raised on a diet of Lifetime movies, and those suckers have more dead people in them than your local cemetery. I’ve watched hundreds of hours of people pretending to grieve, but none of it approaches the quiet, vivid boldness of this scene. Yeah, it takes patience and endurance to watch the scene, but so does grief, and isn’t that what we all claim we like about stories--that uncanny ability to put us in someone else’s place?

“Okay, so it’s a movie about a woman who eats pie? Good luck with that,” you might be thinking right now. Sure, that pie scene does serve as s sort of emotional centerpiece, but A Ghost Story does manage to hit a lot of notes. From comedy to pathos, to surreal eeriness to nostalgic sweetness, the film gently encompasses a complex range of emotions. In another article HERE, I briefly compared A Ghost Story to Terrence Malick’s film Tree of Life, another deeply personal, beautifully filmed meditation on life, death, and man’s uncertain place in the cosmic order of things. Like Malick’s film, each frame is a work of art. While Malick is all sun-washed Botticelli, A Ghost Story is like an Edward Hopper painting with a white sheeted man injected into each careful mise en scene. All that collective beauty has a way of wooing an audience. What begins as a slightly hokey gimmick soon evolves into a profound story about death. 

This isn’t the movie for everyone. The glacial, mournful pace is enough to put most casual viewers off, so be fairly warned. But if you want the same kind of emotional journey Tree of Life provided (but with fewer dinosaurs), seeing this lovingly crafted movie is cheaper than grief counseling.

Pennie Sublime