To give you a sense of what sitting through A Ghost Story is like, you might want to be warned that, a little over 20 minutes into the film, you're going to watch a grieving widow (Rooney Mara), still reeling from the death of her beloved (Casey Affleck), eat an entire pie. Or at least, most of a pie. Her realtor has dropped it off, as people attempting to comfort the bereaved are wont to do. But this scene is done in only two takes, both of them very long. I couldn't tell you how many minutes, except that it is by far the longest shot in the film. It goes on and on. And with no cuts -- writer-director David Lowery reportedly shot it in one take -- we see Rooney Mara stuffing her face, and swallowing, bite after bite.
Apparently critics are divided and Sundance audiences talked a great deal about it; I'm conflicted about it myself. Although it's the longest shot in the film, it's far from the only shot that seems to go on far longer than necessary, and it was during this shot that I was truly pulled out of the movie. I stopped thinking about the characters and couldn't help but think about the production. What was the conversation like?
"You're going to eat an entire pie on camera."
"An entire pie?"
"An entire pie, yes."
I guess I feel better knowing it was only done in one take. I found myself wondering how many takes they did it in while I was watching. Because this movie has a great many scenes, especially in its first half, that go on so long that your mind naturally wanders. This doesn't seem like the greatest reflection of a film, that it takes "cinema as art" so much more seriously than "cinema as entertainment" that it seriously tests patience. Then again, there's something to be said for longer attention spans.
And there is certainly context here: the dead boyfriend exists through the entire film -- and through the vast expanse of time -- as a ghost, and one who is forced to endure the tedium of eternity. This movie is all of 92 minutes long, and its first half feels like an eternity. It presents a very well-constructed portrait of existential questions, none stated explicitly but all very effectively felt.
And then there is the ghost itself, yet another thing that takes a while to get past. Clearly it's a pointed and very deliberate decision to make the ghost a sheet with two eye holes, the most old-school, cliche presentation of a ghost there's ever been. The way he appears thus is relatively clever: the body, covered in a sheet on a slab, suddenly sits up -- and takes the sheet with it. Cut to the ghost standing in a hallway, and for no discernible reason, there are dark eye holes. Is it dumb? Funny? A statement? All of the above?
The ghost is presented with what seems to be a portal through one of the hospital walls, and he makes a decision. He walks home. And there he stays, pining for his love lost, helpless as she, and the world, moves on and he cannot. After a while watching this film it occurred to me that it might well qualify for academic study. Once you get past its challenges -- and that takes some effort -- the story haunts, and lingers in the mind well after the story is over.
A Ghost Story even brings things full circle in a uniquely satisfying way. It still lingers too long on too many shots even as this happens, but at least in its second half, far more compelling events begin to take place, as the ghost, holding onto this location, observes -- and occasionally interferes with -- successive inhabitants of the house.
It could be said that this movie transcends genre. "Drama" is perhaps the best choice, only for lack of a better word. "Horror" could apply, although it's much more of a horror from the ghost's perspective, and even then it's from an angle of existentialism rather than straightforward fear. That said, there were at least two moments in the film that scared the shit out of me.
In any case, eventually, A Ghost Story very much won me over. The challenge is in getting to that point, where the movie even has that ability. The director himself has spoken in interviews about how that pie scene might go on so long that people give up and walk out. I never walk out of movies, but that scene alone had me convinced I was going to pan the movie, especially considering how many other scenes go on too long with literally nothing actually happening. Nothing, of course, except for the ghost standing and observing, ever so slowly becoming aware of his own helplessness.
It'll work for some people and won't work at all for others. It didn't work for me at all, until it very much did.