If you were to ask me what defines a horror film, I guess I’d say—of course only after pointing you to my eye-opening scary movie reviews and once I’ve fully extolled the glories of The Parsing Haus—that at its core, it’s a movie designed to scare the crap out of you. And in truth, that’s probably also the only thing that connects all those crazy horror films: fear. As you well know, the movies that frighten me the most are the ones that conjure up my own deepest fears—ghosts and possessed kids and twists on the religious symbols I grew up with. But these don’t terrify everyone. Other moviegoers have their own triggers. For sanguivoriphobes, it’s vampires, and agoraphobes would probably cringe in terror through a documentary film about the Sahara. So I guess in truth, any film could become a scary movie when offered up to the right audience.

At first, I almost dismissed A Ghost Story as a completely horror-less film. In fact, I worried that it would just be some moody romantic drama. And in a lot of ways, I’ll be honest, it is. But when you really dig deep, in its own way, A Ghost Story begs some of the most fundamental questions and triggers some of the darkest fears we humans face during our blip of existence on this big ol’ rock we call home. Let’s dive into this somber, cosmic gem of a film.

In A Ghost Story, we are introduced to nameless protagonists played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (oh, and Affleck’s beard—RIP). But no worries, we don’t need their names to know that they’re in love. Not a perfect rom-com love, but that very real, very natural love. That kind of earthly, spend-ten-minutes-of-camera-time-watching-Mara-snuggle-in-bed-with-Affleck’s-birdsnest-of-a-chin kind of love. And yes, be forewarned that there are some uncomfortably intimate, awkwardly long scenes in this film, so make sure you open up all of your crinkly plastic bags of candy before the movie begins. I’m lookin’ at you, dude three rows behind me.

Anyway in truth, it’s actually quite brilliant of director David Lowery to start the film with these almost painfully protracted scenes. You really have no clue why he’s doing it until the plot thickens with the sudden death of Affleck (don’t worry, if you’ve watched one trailer you know that’s not a spoiler). It’s in the morgue that we watch another unpleasantly long take as Affleck transitions from his terrestrial body to a ghost who walks the earth under a magical, endless sheet. Shortly thereafter, Mara spends another ungodly amount of camera time eating her way through her grief (and an entire pie) while sitting on the kitchen floor.

But these long scenes gradually shorten, and time seems to pass much more quickly as the film progresses, as if Lowery is convincing us all that what seems like an eternity here on earth (perhaps that line at the DMV, or those ten extra minutes you spend on the phone with your grandpa when he has that one last story to share) are mere glints in the eye of the afterlife. It’s as if he’s reminding us to soak those moments up, because after all, actually living through those moments is what makes us human.

Soon we are in lockstep with Affleck, who seems destined to roam the earth for the rest of eternity, silently observing his true love move on with her life, and watching people come and go out of his beloved house. Through haunting, wide-angle shots, rooms clouded with dust and muted tones, and an almost agonizing lack of dialogue, a whole other level of fear sinks in—what if this is it? What if after death, we essentially live on, watching the world swirl around us, unable to interact with or affect any of it? What if Scrooge experienced his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but never got the chance to make things right? What if that’s all we get? It’s unbearable heartbreak and unending loneliness all at once.   And if the thought of being trapped that way for eternity isn’t terrifying to agoraphobes and claustrophobes and globophobes alike, I’m not sure what is.

But although that’s the very crux of what terrifies about A Ghost Story, my hunch is that Lowery’s main aims for the film center around its other themes—which it executes quite expertly. I generally leave these themes to Haus and CLGJr to explore in their much more mundane, terror-less films (just making sure you boys are still reading), but I’ll just briefly say that A Ghost Story deftly speaks to love in its truest, deepest, and most eternal sense. It fully explores the very basic but utterly gut-wrenching emotions we share across the generations: grief, sadness, anger, and joy. Through a long, mid-party, alcohol-fueled monologue, the film even takes us back to Philosophy 101 to tackle the classic “what does it all mean?” questions.

But all the while, the depths of these themes are balanced with Affleck’s persistently whimsical ghost costume, which dances along the line between hilarious and eerie quite nicely. It’s actually amazing how much emotion Lowery and Affleck manage to wrench from such an expressionless, voiceless character.

And so ultimately we end up with a much heavier, much more emotional sort of horror film than usual. Almost entirely bereft of frights, A Ghost Story is nevertheless a lovely, otherworldly tale.

SpecialK Verdict: A Ghost Story is by no means an upper, nor is it a horror film in the traditional sense, but this poignant story is a beautiful, must-see exploration of humanity and the hereafter all tied up neatly into one little film.

A Ghost Story opened July 7. 

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