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A Film Diary

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Watched: 26 September

Fast becoming one of the most interesting young directors working in America today, David Lowery has followed up his confident debut film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the gentle, entertaining remake of Pete’s Dragon with an excellent curio: an emotionally stirring, striking and heartfelt study of a ghost who is trapped in the house in which he once lived, while corporeal, and who is himself traumatised by the arrival of new residents and haunted by the slowly-disappearing memories of his life. The ghost in question – previously a musician – is played by Casey Affleck, while Rooney Mara is his grieving partner, who we see moving on with her life during one of the best cinematic sequences I’ve witnessed all year… one in which time suddenly speeds up with the help of a few modest effects.

Affleck’s costume is simple, yet remarkable: it’s just a big sheet with a couple of eyeholes, but it has been carefully altered for each scene, so that in addition to the sad-looking, expressive eyes, the way that the cloth hangs seems to change the ghost’s demeanour andreveal it’s mood to the watching audience. When you first see this traditional-looking spirit – looking like the kind of ghost a child would create – it seems silly, but because of the expressions we think we are seeing, and because of the consistency and subtlety of Affleck’s movement within the costume, it quickly feels familiar, and you accept it readily. Though the films themselves are miles apart, in some ways it reminded me of Michael Fassbender’s performance in Frank, in which he wore a giant papier-mâché Frank Sidebottom head throughout; never once did I think that it wasn’t Fassbender under that helmet, and similarly here I assumed Affleck was present under the sheet throughout. Whether he actually was or not doesn’t matter to me.

Ordinarily, after Affleck’s character dies, we would expect to follow Mara’s grieving partner, so it’s something of a surprise when she disappears from the film and it becomes clear that the story isn’t really about her, or them, but is in actual fact about the ghost and the place he inhabits – ie how he experiences loss and separation and how the house changes but ‘he’ cannot. There are significant temporal shifts as this plays out; witness the now-infamous pie-eating scene, which goes on for several minutes, and compare it with the way that the final act of A Ghost Story spans decades, or even hundreds of years, in the space of just a few seconds of screen time. What the director does here with space and time is very impressive indeed. I won’t say more, but Lowery’s third film grabbed me from the off, and I feel that it delivers on its intriguing premise and then some.

I’d have given a rating of five stars, but have knocked half a star off because of one particular scene, which contains a jolting, shoehorned-in monologue by a character at a party, played by the musician Will Oldham. To his credit, Oldham does deliver his lines with skill, and I appreciate that the intention is for it to set up the third act, but it’s one of those awful moments in which a movie’s themes are spelled out one by one for the benefit of the audience. The rest of the film is enigmatic, and its appeal lies in its mystery, its otherness. The decision to suddenly dispense with this mystique – however brief it may be – is a shame. Aside from this, though, we’re talking about one of the year’s best. (****½)

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