“A Ghost Story”

A Ghost Story

IF YOU’VE FOUND yourself in the London Underground any time recently––no doubt crushed against three other people on a Tube that smells of sweat and makes you wish you hadn’t left your cattle prod at home––you may have noticed the distinctive posters for A Ghost Story pasted on the station walls, and the effusive praise that decorates the space around the image of its central character.

One of them reads “almost a masterpiece” and last night, as the lights came up in the screening room of the BFI Southbank, my immediate thought was that whoever wrote those words had not gone far enough. A Ghost Story is, put simply, one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. This isn’t the post-film afterglow talking: David Lowery’s inventive film is a deeply affecting and unforgettable exploration of life, of love, and of grief, driven by a quite brilliant performance by Casey Affleck.

The film begins with a quotation from the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” An unnamed man (Affleck) is a struggling musician (complete with unruly mop of hair and beard) who lives with his wife (Rooney Mara) in a small house in suburbia. The house is small but spacious and contains a piano which, one night, discharges a loud noise, as if something had fallen on it.


Through the subtle fold and droop of the sheet’s fabric we understand The Ghost’s feelings: he is a sad and confused and childlike figure who seems not to understand his own existence. Lowery doesn’t invert the usual meditations on grief, which quite understandably place their focus on the living, but he does ask us to consider whether the dead are grieving too.


Later on, the man is killed in a car accident outside his home and his wife identifies his body at the morgue before covering him again in a white sheet. When no one is around, he––or rather his ghost––suddenly sits up. The sheet covers him entirely and drags along the floor, and there are two black holes where his eyes should be. In other words, he is a child’s idea of how a ghost would look.

Through the subtle fold and droop of the sheet’s fabric we understand The Ghost’s feelings: he is a sad and confused and childlike figure who seems not to understand his own existence. Lowery doesn’t invert the usual meditations on grief, which quite understandably place their focus on the living, but he does ask us to consider whether the dead are grieving too.

The dead, in Lowery’s universe, can affect the physical world in small and subtle ways––knocking a book off a shelf, for instance––but their movement is restricted to the house they lived in at the time of their death. It means for all ghosts, there is not only the immediate pain of separation from the world of the real and from their loved ones, and the frustration of being unable to communicate with them, but the added grief of watching them, in almost all cases, leave them forever for a second time.

A Ghost Story is not scary. It isn’t even creepy, because there’s something so endearing about these white-sheeted figures who straddle the worlds of the real and the supernatural. It is, however, sad and absurd and sometimes very funny in subtle ways (one of the ghosts, for instance, wears a flowery sheet).


There is a brilliant and lengthy scene in which the newly-widowed wife eats the best part of a pie left on her table by a well-meaning neighbour, the camera resting on her all the while, and if it feels like an eternity, spare a thought for our hero, The Ghost.


Throughout the film Lowery is patient (patience-testing, I don’t doubt, to some). A single shot will last minutes and he will pan very slowly from a given image. There is a brilliant and lengthy scene in which the newly-widowed wife eats the best part of a pie left on her table by a well-meaning neighbour, the camera resting on her all the while, and if it feels like an eternity, spare a thought for our hero, The Ghost. (I should say here that Mara is typically excellent throughout A Ghost Story, though she is, understandably, upstaged).

In fact, Lowery’s management of time and pace throughout the film is superb, and the events seems to run outside the particular and peculiar tempo of The Ghost himself in a subtle confirmation of his existence outside the world of the real. Time, it’s clear, is a major theme for Lowery: there is even at one point a memorable and oddly mesmerising nihilistic speech in which a character argues that humanity’s efforts are worthless because the universe will one day die.

The film grows increasingly dark and weird and thoughtful as it progresses, and concludes, or near enough concludes, with a hauntingly beautiful and music-filled scene that may or may not have teased a tear or two out of one usually composed reviewer. In a time when films about the supernatural are of the quiet, quiet, BANG variety, and designed to provide cheap and superficial thrills, this is something really, really special. It’s a masterpiece.

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‘Manchester by the Sea’

'Manchester by the Sea'

IF YOU’VE EVER seen Shane Meadows’ brilliant Dead Man’s Shoes, you’ll know how unsettling it is when characters talk about someone in hushed, fearful tones. In Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s ‘Anthony’s brother’, back from the war. In the similarly bleak Manchester by the Sea it’s the tragic, withdrawn figure of Lee Chandler, who is forced to return home after the death of his brother.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor at an apartment complex in a Boston suburb who spends his days shovelling snow and scrubbing toilets and his nights knocking back pints in a bar. It’s clear that something dark has happened in his past – something dark enough to turn the funny and likeable man shown in flashbacks into the haunted, apathetic figure of the present. But there’s a strange serenity to the colourless life that Lee leads: he drifts through the day and drinks through the night and nothing really changes – that is, until the collapse of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces him out of his routine, and he’s told he has to look after his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).


At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him.


At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him, speaking to no one except his boss and the ungrateful residents of the apartments he maintains. His interactions only reassert that despondency and a threat of violence that Affleck depicts so well through the hunched shoulders and the hands stuffed in pockets and the glassy-eyed gazes. In flashbacks full of colour and energy, he’s a different man. He jokes with his brother on their boat and smothers his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) with drunken, boyish affection, and all you can wonder is what unspeakable, unthinkable thing could have happened to turn this man into that one.

Manchester by the Sea is all about Lee Chandler, and therefore so much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of its lead, and Affleck gives an exceptionally controlled performance that is very probably his best to date, never seeming stoic or sociopathic but tightly clenched and deeply self-loathing, always on the verge of rage. He’s short on dialogue for the first act of the film but is still completely engrossing.

Affleck, of course, has the benefit of a talented cast of co-stars. Michelle Williams’s role, though significant, is small – too small for her to be billed as a central character – but she plays it well. The scenes in which she appears are the most memorable of the film. Meanwhile Kyle Chandler does that gentle, paternal thing he always does so well as Lee’s brother Joe, while Lucas Hedges turns in a convincing performance as the outgoing Patrick, who spends much of the film in the passenger seat of Lee’s car, on the way to band practice or school. While Patrick is busy with friends and sport and schoolwork, Lee seems simply to have no reserves of grief left, and their scenes offer some relief from the gloominess and pessimism that pervades the film.


Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering.


Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering. When his brother dies, Lee has to fill out forms and sort out finances, highlighting the endlessness of his personal misery and the tedious everyday realities that follow a death. In other scenes Lee can’t find where he’s parked his car or has to reheat a pizza, and somehow through these minor events his every gesture betrays the deep and all-consuming sorrow he’ll never be able to overcome.

The first half of Manchester by the Sea is better than the second, and at around the hour and fifteen minute mark the pace slows to a crawl. Though it gathers in pace towards the end it still feels a fraction too long, and Lonergan is so focused on Lee that we see too little of Randi and her inner world, and the film seems weaker for it. But Manchester by the Sea is a brilliant film, because Lonergan, whose last film, Margaret, was released five years ago to critical acclaim, isn’t selling some romantic notion of grief – he’s offering realism. The wounds made by loss, Lonergan insists, never really heal. Manchester by the Sea is heartbreaking and exhausting, and a shining cinematic study of individual suffering.

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