A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story is mostly dialogue-free in its slow, insular reflections on the vastness of time & the universe, so it’s strange to me that the one scene its most fervent fans seem to pick a bone with is its sole monologue. After watching a ghost solemnly haunt a single home in silence for, presumably, decades, the film pauses to allow Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy to pontificate about the nature of time & the human condition in an uninterrupted, minutes-long diatribe. In the middle of a house party, Oldham’s unnamed, beer-swilling philosopher explains that, because of the impermanence of the human race & the enormity of time, all art is ultimately insignificant. A great artist might be remembered for the merits of their most substantial work generations after their death, but since humanity & the galaxy that hosts it will ultimately collapse, it’s a temporary impact at best, a complete waste of time at worst. For me, this one speech that seems to be aggravating so many otherwise-enthusiastic audiences is one of the only interesting, honest ideas presented in A Ghost Story. It was one of the few scenes that actually made me perk up in my seat. Unfortunately, its nihilistic worldview also positions the movie as a solidly convincing argument against itself. If all art is ultimately insignificant because of the impermanence of humanity & the destructive forces of time, why should I waste my life watching somber, existential reflections on stillness & regret like the one A Ghost Story presents? It seems like I’d get more out of cheap, immediate thrills like Arnold Schwarzenegger delivering ice pun one-liners or Tom Green swinging a baby above his head in a circle by the umbilical chord. At least I’d have more fun while waiting to be crushed & forgotten by an uncaring universe that way.

Rooney Mara & Casey Affleck star as a visibly dour romantic couple whose main argument seems to recur around Affleck’s deep devotion to their lackluster home. Early in the first act, the poor sap dies in a car wreck mere yards away from the shit hole property he loves so much, then spends the rest of the film silently observing (as a ghost) the ways the home evolves as several different generations pass through it. He watches as Rooney Mara gradually processes her grief & learns to move on with her life. He throws a hissy fit when an eye-rollingly superstitious Hispanic family moves in to replace her, chasing them out of their home. He becomes even more bitter listening to the aforementioned Will Oldham speech, then sorta gives in to his despair as society moves on to bigger & “better” things. While time folds in on itself in the cyclical way the universe tends to go about its business, he’s still left standing in the same spot, stuck, and possibly forgetful of why he stayed behind in the first place. This is obviously a mostly visual narrative. A Ghost Story‘s square frame, with its rounded-off corners (recalling Instagram or an old-fashioned Viewfinder toy), commands much more power & attention than any of its traditional story beats as the centuries roll on and the same drab, Active Child-riffing song loops endlessly on the soundtrack. The still, intimate conflicts of its early scenes eventually evolve into decades-spanning sweeps in later sequences, suggesting a kind of narrative progression in a vague sense, even while Affleck’s ghost remains a fixed point. Excepting Will Oldham’s bloviating at the house party centerpiece, the movie doesn’t do much to perk up its audience outside the strength of its imagery, which is interesting, but never interesting enough.

Besides its 4:3 aspect ratio, A Ghost Story‘s main visual hook is the look of its titular ghost. Casey Affleck’s ghostly visage takes a page from the book of Beetlejuice, adopting the old-fashioned Halloween costume look of a white bedsheet with two cut-out eyeholes. Great costume design detail is paid to the folds & draping of that bedsheet and it’s honestly welcome to have a break from gazing at Affleck’s sexual harasser, Boston bro face for the majority of the movie, but the choice doesn’t amount to much more beyond that. There’s a Tumblr account I follow that adds ghostly bedsheets to old photographs via layers of white-out that does a lot more with this visual conceit in a single frame than A Ghost Story does in an entire feature. It even has the added bonus of not employing a known movie industry creep who seems to be falling upwards in Hollywood right now despite his entitled, abusive misbehavior. Affleck’s presence in the film is most effective when his inherent creepiness is actively put to use, like when he hides in children’s closets or smashes a Latina single mother’s dishes in a temper tantrum. Outside of a couple jump scares, this is no more of a horror film than Personal Shopper or, going further back, Ghost, but there’s still some potential here in the idea of Casey Affleck tormenting PoC families & the women in his former life from beyond the grave that I find more amusing & worthwhile than any of the film’s philosophical ponderings. It’s a shame neither Rooney Mara nor the nameless single mother were afforded as much uninterrupted dialogue as Will Oldham was in his single scene appearance, since their interactions with the ghostly Affleck were much more prolonged & substantial.

In accepting that all art is inconsequential outside its in-the-moment entertainment, the best I could hope to find in A Ghost Story was some sense of novelty. A few stray images like a prismatic reflection on a living room wall transforming into a galaxy or a sheeted Affleck floating through a massive office building were temporary reliefs, but mostly the movie felt like slightly more trouble than it was worth. In A Ghost Story‘s sole moment of true novelty, Rooney Mara attempts to suppress her grief by aggressively eating an entire pie in a single, unbroken shot before inevitably puking it up. I appreciate the dedication in forcing the audience to stew in the discomfort of that moment, but it’s difficult to not feel disappointed that she doesn’t even eat the whole pie before her body gives up. That kind of 75% follow-through corrupts the entire act of watching this film for entertainment in the first place. This is especially true once Will Oldham’s big speech rattles around in the air, questioning the point of watching something like this at all when you could be having cheap fun instead. It’s all meaningless & temporary anyway, so we might as well fill our time with the kind of pictures where, metaphorically speaking, Rooney Mara eats the whole pie.

-Brandon Ledet

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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A lot of the critical dialogue surrounding Manchester by the Sea is about how soul-shatteringly sad the film is. For instance, warning audiences about the emotional heft of the film was actually the basis of Casey Affleck’s entire opening monologue when he recently hosted SNL. That reputation’s not exactly off-base. Manchester by the Sea is a dramatic study of a family in grief over two timelines, a portrait of loss & regret in the most realistic of terms. People get so unbearably sad in this film that their bodies shut down, their eyes go dead, and they can’t fathom a reason why they should live for another minute. The dirty secret about Manchester by the Sea, though, the part that most people aren’t addressing, is that despite its fearless gaze into the suicidal depths of grief & loss, it’s actually really damn funny. The immense pressure the film’s dramatic weight puts on its characters is constantly released by flippant, tough guy humor and you’re a lot more likely to laugh through a majority of the film than you are to cry. Just when you feel like you can easily laugh away the pain, though, the film’s emotional devastation crashes in on you in an insurmountable flood. It’s true to life in that way.

Casey Affleck headlines this small budget weepie as an underpaid handyman who has to step in to handle his brother’s estate after his sudden, but expected death. This responsibility includes caring for his teenage nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, something he’s not at all prepared for due to a past trauma that’s gradually revealed to the audience in flashbacks. What develops is two duelling timelines, both heartbreaking in their circumstances, but made amusing by the quiet, sullen humor of its tough guy protagonists who foolishly believe they’re stronger than their own emotions. Much like with the recent black comedy Joshy, Manchester by the Sea is largely about the way traditional masculinity doesn’t leave room for genuine expressions of emotional pain. Characters cover their feelings with tough-it-out jokes & good-natured ribbing until the arrival of someone actually willing to address the trauma head on, roles filled by the wonderfully talented Michelle Williams & Gretchen Mol, rushes the truth to the surface.

Casey Affleck’s lead performance is going to overshadow a lot of this film’s other details when it comes to its critical reputation. The quiet squeaks in his voice, the dead eyes of PTSD, the sudden bursts of explosive violence: his performance is well-deserving of the attention it’ll attract. This is a movie that’s non-imposing in its visual craft, washing everything in greys & seafoam greens so that the performances & the dialogue are more of the main attraction than the directorial work. Mol, Williams, and Hedges all make excellent use of each moment they’re afforded, but Affleck’s consistent hovering between looking like he might weep or throw a punch at any second is going to steal a lot of their thunder. That’s okay, though. What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.

-Brandon Ledet