Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Poltergeist perambulations


Casey Affleck plays a phantom in director David Lowery's "A Ghost Story," opening Friday in the Bay Area. Photo: David Lowery
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Arriving four months before Halloween is a scary summer treat whose 93 minutes play like a homework assignment in a liberal arts freshman college course in Existential Angst 101. With "A Ghost Story," David Lowery, whose big-screen resume includes "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," provides an adult summer movie that shuns cheap tricks and instead offers a full-submersion baptism into heavy themes: loss, legacy, and our ongoing desire for meaning and connection.

The story kicks off with a man who has just died returning to his suburban family to comfort his distraught wife, "M" (Rooney Mara). This brand-new ghost, or "C" (played by freshly-minted Oscar winner Casey Affleck), is horrified to discover that his new state of being has left him unstuck in time, forced to watch helplessly as everything he worked for and cherished in his life is quickly swept away.

Our emotionally and spiritually unmoored ghost finds himself starting out on a philosophical journey through memory and history, facing life's ineffable questions and the enormity of existence. A meditation on love and grief, "A Ghost Story" is a unique experience that may, for its fans, linger long after they stumble out of the theater.

As a precocious teenager I was fond of TV plays on New York City's brand-new "educational" channel (they hadn't yet coined the brand name "Public TV"), plays like George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman," with their dark humor and class-conscious plots. In some ways "A Ghost Story" is a throwback to that type of drama, as illustrated in this scene between C and M.

M: "What is it you like about this house so much?"

C: "History."

"When I was little and we used to move all the time, I'd write these notes and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them."

"What'd they say?"

"They're just things I wanted to remember so that if I ever wanted to go back, there'd be a piece of me there waiting."

Warning: "A Ghost Story" isn't for all tastes. Those desiring simpler spectral entertainment have two entertaining but worthy alternatives: (1) is the lovely Anthony Minghella-directed 1991 British ghostly comedy "Truly, Mad, Deeply," where a bereaved woman (Juliet Stevenson) discovers that her recently departed husband (a charming Alan Rickman) is haunting their old mansion in the company of some rather odd layabouts. (2) is a terrific 2001 Spanish-set tale, "The Devil's Backbone," where director Guillermo del Toro places sexy teen boys in ghostly peril in a story set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

Meanwhile, "A Ghost Story" delivers upscale chills for the art-house crowd. If that's what you hanker for, this scream is for you.


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