A GHOST STORY

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - PHIL DE SEMLYEN

THE TALE OF a dead man who haunts his old home wear­ing a bed sheet with the eyes cut out,

A Ghost Story’s semi-ab­sur­dist premise shouldn’t work. The shot lengths are some­where be­tween long and in­ter­minable, its star is a face­less pres­ence through­out, and there’s a seven-minute scene with a pie. Some will find it overly grandiose (if you’ve ever won­dered what Ter­rence Mal­ick’s

Ren­taghost might look like, there are worse places to start look­ing), while its lan­guorous pac­ing won’t be to all tastes. Yet, some­how, its gen­tle ru­mi­na­tions on death and mourn­ing and the pass­ing of time cast a pow­er­ful spell.

The film be­gins qui­etly, with its cen­tral cou­ple, ‘C’ and ‘M’ (with eerie anonymity, Affleck and Mara’s char­ac­ters are re­ferred to only by their ini­tials), shar­ing a mo­ment of ten­der­ness on the sofa. “I’m so scared,” M laughs. “Why are you scared?” he asks. “I don’t know.” The ex­change proves prophetic. Soon C is ly­ing on a mor­tu­ary slab fol­low­ing an off-cam­era car ac­ci­dent. Here the film’s mys­ter­ies be­gin to re­veal them­selves. C rises from the dead and, trail­ing sheets be­hind him like a Scooby-doo vil­lain on a bud­get, re­turns home.

In­vis­i­ble to his wife and with time seem­ing to ac­cel­er­ate, he wit­nesses as she first grieves then be­gins to move on with her life. With heart­break­ing im­pas­sive­ness, he just stands by, watch­ing as she brings a date back to the house, and again as she pre­pares to move out. Across the yard, an­other sheet-clad spec­tre ap­pears at the neigh­bour’s win­dow. Ghost C is not the only one in this linen-clad pur­ga­tory, yet he’s very much alone.

Through all this, writer-di­rec­tor David Low­ery of­fers a ghost’s-eye view on our place in the world that throws up the big­gest of ques­tions. How long will we be re­mem­bered? Can we re­ally ex­pect to live on be­yond our deaths? Is ev­ery­thing that marked our time on Earth des­tined to be washed away? As one par­ty­goer (a pep­pery cameo from mu­si­cian Will Old­ham, aka Bon­nie ‘Prince’ Billy) muses at a gath­er­ing in the house years later, all ef­forts to be re­mem­bered are doomed be­cause, “By and by, the planet will die.” Cheer­ing stuff.

As with Low­ery’s first pair­ing of Affleck and Mara, 2013’s Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints, a Texan crime ro­mance with echoes of Bad­lands, the com­par­isons with Mal­ick are apt again here: in the spirit of The Tree Of Life, A Ghost Story is both deeply in­ti­mate and vast in scope, bridging years, then cen­turies, be­fore loop­ing back on it­self. Mean­while, Daniel Hart’s score stitches to­gether its long takes with sor­row­ful strings.

What’s hard to imag­ine is what the more straight­for­ward hor­ror movie Low­ery orig­i­nally con­ceived would have looked like. The clos­est he comes to de­liv­er­ing a jump scare is a bang­ing piano lid, or some futz­ing about with lights as Affleck’s ap­pari­tion suc­cumbs to im­po­tent rage. What he’s crafted in­stead is a genre all of its own — ex­is­ten­tial hor­ror? Lim­bosploita­tion flick? Ma­chine-wash­able indie? It’s dif­fi­cult, and hard to love, but it’s cer­tainly a film un­like any­thing else you’ll see this year.

Per­haps he’d got the wrong ad­dress for the Hal­lowe’en bash.

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