On the one hand, when the critical consensus coheres and you’re so far outside of it that you suspect that someone’s been drugging the popcorn, the reasonable observer questions their own faculties. Is it, to put it simply, me?
On the other, one of the fundamental building blocks of good criticism is faith in your own opinions; the ability to say “this is fucking this” without dissembling, without qualification, and without faltering in the face of public opinion.
So, with that in mind, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is pretentious garbage, and I have absolutely no idea what the multitude of pundits singing its praises are talking about. It may not be the worst film I’ve seen this year (Hi, Chips!), but it’s close.
I’d call it sophomoric, but really it’s a freshman effort, which is discomfiting given that Lowery has two other quite decent films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon, under his belt. In fact, it’s such a freshman effort that you can zero in on the exact first year college course it gestated in: Philosophy 101: Baby’s First Book of Existentialism.
Meet our heroes C (Casey Affleck), and M (Rooney Mara), who lack names and personalities because fuck specificity, right? C’s a musician of some kind, because of course he is, while M’s got a full time job looking like Rooney Mara and inhabiting their rustic, eclectic, semi-rural house that looks like it was decorated by a production designer who whittles his own bacon in his spare time. Their existence is one of wistful looks and twee, oblique conversations, until poor C is killed in a car accident and returns as a ghost, draped in a sheet and voiceless.
The kernel of an interesting idea glides by as we see that C’s… spirit? echo? whatever, Lowery is not interested in clarity – is trapped in the same physical location, while time marches on. That’s time with a capital T – we, and C, witness numerous families movie into his old house, then the destruction of the house, the rise of a futuristic metropolis, and then time looping on itself, the past repeating, and on, and on…
Which sounds intriguing, but it’s all a glib, snide hustle. A Ghost Story isn’t about the crushing weight of geological time and the terror of the infinite. It isn’t about the effect of eternity on C’s fragile human psyche – Lowery didn’t bother to give him a name, for crying out loud, so he’s sure as hell not going to give him agency or personality. It’s not about the inevitability of entropy and the absurdity of existence, although there’s a point where it tries to convince you that it is: at one juncture C’s old home is host to a boozy party, and some insufferable asshole (Will “Bonnie Prince Billy” Oldham) stops the movie dead in its barely-moving tracks to rattle on about the inevitable heat death of the universe, which is distracting for a moment until you realise the film is actively engaged with a cosmology that includes an afterlife, so this entire scene is utter bullshit.
Then you might think that the whole thing is, like, a metaphor, man, and expecting narrative sense and internal consistency might be approaching this thing the wrong way, but then you consider the exquisitely crafted systems of metaphors and signifiers and meaning that other, better filmmakers have painstakingly constructed in ostensibly similar “challenging” work, and realise that there’s none of that here. We’re not being invited into another psychological or mythopoeic universe and asked to try and parse its unique language – we’re stuck with a stranger at a party who is insisting on making us thumb through his entire Instagram account (which would at least explain that fucking aspect ratio). Oh look, here’s a photo of Rooney eating a whole pie to herself. At magic hour.
But what really galls is how goddamn smug the whole exercise is, how convinced of its own profundity and depth. It’s like leafing through a 15 year old Morrissey* fan’s poetry journal and realising that, for all their endless scribbling about pain and loss, the most traumatic thing they’ve experienced is a stubbed toe or a strict curfew. What’s worse, none of it rhymes.
It’s a trash fire, is what I’m saying; a limp, intellectually lazy, leaden load of grief-posturing – the Lana del Rey of cinema, a hollow thing that wears sorrow as a fashion accessory in the hopes that it makes it look mysterious. But the only mystery here is who in their right mind greenlit this tumbling embarrassment of a film, and what they’re doing for a living now their film career is over.
Still, your mileage may vary.
*I’m old, but you can sub in the insufferable band of your choice. Neutral Milk Hotel, perhaps.