Ever wanted to see Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara eat a pie? Odd question, I realize, but apparently one that writer/director David Lowery felt compelled to answer. With the success of last year’s utterly heart-warming Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery secretly made a low-budget movie with Casey Affleck and Mara, reuniting two of his actors from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The end result, A Ghost Story, literally involves a deceased Affleck stalking the screen in a long white sheet with two eyeholes. Lowery’s tone poem of metaphysical grief will likely alienate just as many people as it dazzles, and I fall squarely in the former camp. This movie is arthouse bluster.
This is a twenty-minute short stretched beyond a breaking point to fit a feature-length running time. It’s an impressionistic movie in the guise of the works of Terrence Malick, small and earnest and far more concerned about mood than story. That’s fine but if you’re going the impressionistic route I need scenes that aren’t self-indulgently laborious and constantly striking the same note. The majority of this movie is beautifully composed shots that eventually reveal the ghost standing in the background. It becomes a game of guessing when the camera will reveal the ghost’s presence. I understand that grief and loneliness is going to naturally deserve a slower pace to get a sense of the melancholic loss, but a slow movie that keeps delivering the same imagery is monotonous. The metaphors get old. The only thing holding the audience together is the time-traveling quest for the ghost to retrieve the note Mara’s character slipped into a door jam. It’s a long mystery that will ultimately prove an unworthy payoff. If Lowery is intending for the audience to feel the same sense of boredom and isolation as the ghost, that’s fine, but the movie dwells in this same emotional space with too little variance or further insight.
And this is where I have to come back to the pie as a symbol of the film’s self-indulgence. I have felt the urge to walk out of other movies but never acted upon them. I was minutes away from walking out on A Ghost Story, and it was the pie-eating scene that almost pushed me to bail. The idea of binge eating your feelings is a suitable metaphor for grief, and it works on its own initially, as she sniffles and holds back tears with every bite. And then she keeps eating. And then she keeps eating. The scene goes on for like ten minutes, uninterrupted, and with no further commentary. You are literally watching Mara eat a pie in real time and then throw up. After the sixth or so minute of pie consumption, I started laughing out loud, and then other people around me joined in. What can you do? Just as Mara’s character overindulges to the point of sickness, this scene pushes the beleaguered audience to the point of running out of the room gagging.
This would be different if the movie gave Mara anything really to do besides swallow her feelings. She has a few more scenes of the humdrum of moving on, painting the house she shared with her loved one, and then leaving. It seems like an awful waste of Mara’s talents but I would say the same thing for Affleck. I’m sure not having to memorize any lines after the ten-minute mark and getting to emote entirely through physical expression could be fun for an actor. It’s practically a throwback to silent film thespians. However, he’s just kind of there, like living furniture. I understand that part of grief is feeling like you’re a forgotten being and that time is infinite and punishing. I understand that sadness can feel numbing and cut to the bone. I get the mood; I even get the central metaphor of the de-contextualized ghost in a sheet just hanging around old haunts, unable to do much else, disconnected from the world and unable to move on or make sense of things. My issue is that this approach relegates the actors to stand-ins, squeezing the characters into intentionally bland ciphers for audience relatability. They are not allowed to be characters because somehow this would detract from the artistic appeal or message.
It’s frustrating because A Ghost Story has ideas, images, and moments that intrigue, beguile, and have a poignant power. It’s when the film expands beyond its limited parameters that it becomes its more interesting shape. As the ghost attempts to keep watch over Mara’s character, time moves much faster, to the point that a mere walk from one room to another can be the expanse of months. The triptych sequence of being unmoored through time, as everything speeds by so quickly, accentuates the helplessness of the ghost as well as the isolation. It’s like the world and life itself is outgrowing them, forgetting them, and leaving them further and further behind. There are also other ghosts and our ghost has a subtitled dialogue with them. It sounds silly but it’s actually one of the most sublimely affecting moments in the film, an idea that actually hits its intended mark. Take this exchange: “I’m waiting for someone,” “Who?” “I don’t remember.” Then the other ghost goes back to waiting, forever hopeful, forever clinging onto something that has long since evaporated, where even the memory, the concept of the idea of why has also vanished. Late into the movie the ghost starts going backwards and forwards in time, to a distant future of Bladerunner-like neon high-rises, to the nineteenth century to track a family of westward settlers. The abrupt careening through time says more about the ghost’s existence and it keeps things fresh. If this movie was a total wash, I could write off Lowery’s curio as self-important navel-gazing, but there are kernels of ideas, or moments, that stand out and demand a better presentation for better effect
A Ghost Story will definitely strike different people differently. It’s a deeply personal, poetic, and, if you’re not properly attuned to its metaphysical funeral procession, pretentious and pondersome film that wears out its welcome long before the end credits. I found the substance to be spread too thin over such a longer running time than this execution deserved. If you’re going for an impressionistic evocation, then the scenes need to be paced better. If you’re going for a mood of loneliness, then latch onto the character better and let’s follow Mara’s character as she rebounds and grows old. If you’re going for an existential horror movie, then present more confusion and terror and less of the same visual metaphors on constant repeat. If you’re going for Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in real time, then, well, actually you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. A Ghost Story is going to be one of those movies that critics fawn over that leaves me shrugging.
Nate’s Grade: C
I have no personal love for the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon. I thought you, dear reader, deserved to know this morsel. I never felt a sense of wonder from the animated dragon creating mischief while a town tried to rid itself of an orphan and a bunch of hillbillies sang an ode to child abuse (it was a different time?). Disney has gotten into the self-cannibalizing habit of dipping into its own past and remaking its animated hits for a new generation of moviegoers. It worked splendidly with last spring’s Jungle Book, and the new version of Pete’s Dragon is further proof that when Disney aligns the right artist with a vision and gives them latitude to express that vision, rewards are generously reaped. This is a delightful, heartwarming, and enchanting summer movie that got me crying.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy who lives in the wooded reservations with one very special friend, a furry green dragon he has named Eliot. He’s been living in the woods for six years after Eliot rescued him following a car accident that claimed the lives of Pete’s parents. One day a park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), comes across Pete and brings him back into town for medical evaluation. He’s a mystery child, a bit feral, and demands to return home into the woods. Grace incites Pete into her home and her family, but there are worries about the boy acclimating to society. All the while Eliot is looking for his best friend and mournful that they might have to part ways after all.
Pete’s Dragon is a simple story but this is not a detriment to its ultimate effectiveness. Rather the filmmakers take care to treat this childhood fable with enough heart and earnest emotion that the movie feels fully developed to its aims. The characters and their journeys aren’t exactly revolutionary, but I didn’t mind at all. This is an old-fashioned family film told without irony and set in a nondescript past that adds to the universal appeal of its message. It’s elegantly simple but there are poignant themes running under the surface, namely an unmistakable level of melancholy with Pete’s process of growing up. This feels like Disney’s version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, a movie that examines the hard but necessary transitions of childhood and the acceptance of a sort of loss among the fantastic. This movie isn’t consumed with a dour interpretation of childhood as an oppressively hellish existence of misunderstanding (I didn’t connect with Where the Wild Things Are if you couldn’t tell) but it does acknowledge a loneliness of being absent a family to call your own. Pete’s life with Eliot is filled with boyish excitement and adventure but he knows he can’t hold onto that world much longer, and this realization magnifies the remaining time with Eliot. From start to finish, Pete’s’ Dragon is bursting with warmth and resonant emotions.
I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that this film delivered. Not since perhaps Pixar’s Up has a movie so effectively triggered my sympathies in its opening ten minutes. In a beautiful yet tastefully restrained sequence, Pete becomes an orphan and is rescued by Eliot, and the vulnerability and compassion of this moment already had me tearing up. Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for the “boy and his dog” stories, and while Eliot is a special dragon by design he is, at his core, a rendition of man’s best friend. Their relationship is one of love, companionship, and protection. They’re a pack. When Eliot spots Pete cozy in a family house, he’s crestfallen but accepts that a placement in the human world is where Pete belongs. And then at the end after a fraught situation, Pete instinctively runs to Eliot and leaps into his arms, and Eliot takes him in, holding him dearly, and it was at this point that I couldn’t stop the flow of tears even if I wanted to. Happy tears, people. The takeaway of the film is the formative bonds of family and the need to reach out for that nourishing companionship. While it’s highly emotional, it’s all earned and avoids cheap maudlin, manipulative theatrics, short of one extended sequence of Eliot’s capture.
I never would have expected such an old-fashioned yet preternaturally charming movie from the team responsible for the somber indie Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Director/co-writer David Lowery is locked-in with its goals and finds ways to build its characters through small, cumulative actions. The film also has a marvelous sense of place as get a strong feel for everyday life in this foggy Pacific Northwest environment. Contributing to that sense is a terrific soundtrack of low-key folk songs that thrum with a lovely homespun gentleness that taps into the earthy magic of its setting. The score strings-heavy by Daniel Hart is perfectly attuned to the emotional rhythms of the film without becoming overbearing. The photography is often gorgeous and the editing near invisible with how effortlessly it presents its story with room to breathe. There’s a standout sequence that highlights just how well all of these individual elements come together to form a greater whole. Pete escapes from the town’s hospital and desperately runs outside. He is dazed by the activity of the modern world and the geography of the town, and the residents of this town are just as dazed about Pete, a wild child exploring his alien surroundings. He hops aboard a school bus and the children inside are amazed at Pete’s daredevil antics. The chase sequence is set to the Lumineers’ “Nobody Knows” and it builds upon the sense of discovery, community, and mutual awe. It’s a wonderful sequence that develops patiently.
Part of the success of the movie is also due to the skill and implementation of the special effects team. Eliot is a cuddly creature you want to take home with you yet he can still be intimidating under the right circumstances. He’s on screen a lot but his magical qualities don’t diminish. This is one highly communicative dragon and it’s easy to empathize with him (those exquisitely emotive canine eyes help). There’s a tenderness to him that convinces the audience early on to take a journey with Eliot and see what happens next.
The human specimens are heartfelt and enjoyable as well. Ostensibly the main character, his name is in the title after all, the role of Pete rests on the tiny shoulders of actor Oakes Fegley, and he aces the part, tapping into the rougher, wilder edge while also selling the dramatic moments in a clear relation to his interpretation of the character. The next main character is Howard (Jurassic World) and she’s quite good. She gives a maternal performance that doesn’t go overboard while still allowing her to come across as an independent, thinking woman with her own desire for proof of the fantastical. She has several tender moments with Fegley. The actors all perform ably. Even West Bentley (TV’s American Horror Story) works well in the movie, and when was the last time that could be said? Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) is enjoyably hammy as the villain who’s not much of a villain. I wish Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) was in more scenes because his grandfatherly presence is so enjoyable to watch and he so easily slides into the part.
Disney is two-for-two when it comes to 2016 live-action remakes of its old catalogue, and if The Jungle Book and now Pete’s Dragon are any indication, then bring on the remakes. The original Pete’s Dragon was never a memorable or enjoyable film for me, so there was already much to improve upon, which is what the new version does in every way. It’s poignant, heartwarming, earnest, and bursting with feeling. It’s a simple story told exceptionally well with artistry and grace. There’s a dash of indie flavor to the mainstream filmmaking. I think this movie will appeal to people of all ages, grown ups that are looking for some magic in their movies, as well as families looking for a movie that will entertain children but won’t rot their brains. It’s fortunate that we can end such a mediocre summer at the movies on a high note, and Pete’s Dragon is a wonderful infusion of the old and new, magic and reality, heartache and triumph. It’s a movie dripping with purity, and one that demands to be seen and hopefully cherished.
Nate’s Grade: A-