The Big Sick is not a Judd Apatow film in the strictest sense. The film’s director is Michael Showalter, a writer, director and performer who came up on the 90’s sketch show The State (MTV’s very funny answer to Kids In the Hall), helped form the well-regarded Stella comedy trio, and has now directed a few features, including the creatively premised but middling romantic comedy The Baxter and 2015’s mildly well-reviewed Sally Fields dramedy Hello My Name Is Doris. The film’s credited screenwriters are two married comedians, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon (a comedy writer and pop culture podcaster), and the story itself is an account of the early days of their relationship. The Big Sick is only an Apatow in the sense that Apatow acted as a mentor when Gordon and Nanjiani were fine-tuning the script and his production company, Apatow Productions, provided the financing. But, while Judd Apatow is probably not even the fourth person I would credit The Big Sick to, I am going to have to begin my review by talking about Judd Apatow. The reason for that is that The Big Sick fits so snugly into the wheelhouse of what the best Apatow films do well. At the risk of coming off like some kind of stunted, nerdy bro, The 40 Year-Old Virgin was a formative comedy experience for me. For context, I was 23 years old and there are few things more quintessentially Apatowian (Apatovian?) than having a formative experience at a stoner sexy comedy when you are old enough to have a spouse and a full-time job. But in all seriousness, the bracing mixture of human warmth and bawdy comedy moved me then and still does. When I was a teenager, the sex comedy was most visibly represented by the mean-spirited hijinks of the American Pie franchise and the copycats it inspired. These movies ostensibly had protagonists that we were mean to root for, but the aim always seemed more to see them go through a gauntlet of dumb humiliations. And I don’t want to be too harsh on dumb comedy here, because I can watch a good Farrelly Brothers (a good one, mind you) any day of the week. But I always felt that the American Pie’s of the world were just had petty, cheap, cruel little souls. For all that Jim was the hero of American Pie, I never felt like his own film liked him all that much. Even as an awkward, sexually inexperienced teenager myself, I could not imagine actually identifying with Jim or wanting the best for him. The film’s sneering sense of mockery seemed to discourage anything resembling empathy. Having grown up with those films in the mainstream, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad were like fresh oxygen to this sensitive, humanism-loving movie buff. And now that maybe a little bit of the bloom has fallen from the Apatow rose and we’ve weathered our first patch of Seth Rogen fatigue, I have to defend what films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin meant, and still mean, to me. The idea that uproarious, profane, sexually frank films can be sweet and driven by empathy is a notion worth holding on to. That you can even have a character experience a funny bit of humiliation and still laugh with them because the character is given dignity, intelligence, and an awareness of their own ridiculous situations. Whatever quarrels one might have with the Apatow comedies, I maintain that they are comedies that genuinely like humankind and that matters tremendously to me. It means a lot to me as someone who just likes to see kind, relatable human beings in films. It also means a lot to me as someone who values sex-positivity, because having bawdy sex comedies with generous spirits allows us to laugh about sex in a way that is honest and curious rather than just crass. Most of all, I am in love with any film that can be both uproariously funny about the foibles and misunderstandings of human coupling and still genuinely want the best for those people.
All of that is to say, while giving credit to Showalter and especially Gordon and Nanjiani, that The Big Sick is the best kind of Apatow film. It not only hits comedic highs that are worthy of comparison with the funniest moments of Knocked Up and Superbad, but also manages to hit dramatic depths that are deeper than any of its Apatow predecessors have reached. The Big Sick is the true story of the courtship of Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who met in 2006 at a Chicago standup comedy club where Nanjiani was performing a five-minute set. Gordon (who was completing her Masters to become a therapist at the time) shouts a supportive “woohoo!”, which gives Nanjiani an excuse to approach her at the bar under the guise of correcting her. He explains that heckles are heckles, even when done with positive intent, and the two are soon engaged in deep conversation about their plans and aspirations. They eventually go back to Kumail’s place to have sex and ignore Night of the Living Dead and they end the night intending to not get too serious. However, after proposing not to see each other again too soon, the two quickly fall into a pattern of spending every waking moment together, and before long they are in love. Before long, however, their relationship has to withstand two potentially catastrophic obstacles. First, Najiani has serious trepidations about telling his strict Pakistani parents (played very well by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who insist he marry within a Pakistani woman like his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar in a funny and subdued performance). His mother is particularly insistent, regularly inviting young Pakistani women to “drop by” during family meals so they can meet Kumail and give him their photographs. This leads to disaster when Emily discovers the photographs and consequently learns the even more hurtful fact that Kumail has been hiding their relationship from his parents. As a result, Kumail and Emily end up having a very turbulent breakup and Kumail is resigned to the fact that he will probably never see Emily again. The second obstacle comes shortly thereafter when Kumail receives a call from one of Emily’s grad school classmates alerting him that Emily has come down with what appears to be a very nasty case of influenza and has been placed in the emergency room. Kumail arrives to check on her, only expecting to stay until a friend or family member can take his place. As fate would have it, he ends up being the only person present when the doctors come to a sobering discovery. Emily’s flu has turned into something far more serious, a mysterious infection in her lungs, and she will have to be put into a medically induced coma until they can figure out her ailment. One of Emily’s physicians urges Kumail to say that he is her husband so that they can sign off on the procedure before it is too late. Kumail agrees to sign off, calls Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth, to tell them the news, and then stays until they arrive. When he awakes to find them standing by Emily’s bedside, it is immediately clear that they know this is the young man who broke their daughter’s heart. As Kumail introduces himself, Beth (Holly Hunter, in a performance that juggles fiery anguish, caustic wit, and maternal warmth) tells him tersely, “We know who you are, Kumail.”. Nonetheless, Kumail stays with the Gordons long enough to learn more about Emily’s prognosis, until the genially awkward Terry (a hilarious, utterly revelatory performance by Ray Romano) makes it clear that he can go. Kumail initially does leave, but comes back moved by the feelings he still has for Emily and gripped by a desire to atone for the hurt his dishonesty and cowardice caused. So, after starting as a lovely, sweet, and eventually heartbreaking story of romance found and lost, The Big Sick becomes a different kind of relationship story: the nuanced, overwhelmingly poignant story of a man almost losing his new love to death and going through a harrowing experience with her parents. As that is happening, Kumail is trying to find the strength to come clean with his stern, traditional family about his aspirations to pursue a career in comedy and the fact that he is in love with a white woman. I could say more about the plot, but The Big Sick really is about getting to know these characters (none of them less than very well-acted) and being overwhelmed by the depths of its deeply felt humor and humanity. As with all the great Apatow films, the secret sauce here is a kind of improvised, non-programmatic direction. Scenes don’t simply perform their function and end, but malinger a bit to let the moments and characters breathe. I have personally always liked this loose, shaggy quality , but I do not begrudge anyone who feels the Apatow films could benefit from a bit more economy. That said, if you found Knocked Up too meandering, you will at least be pleased to find that The Big Sick is almost certainly the most focused film to have the Apatow name attached to it, all thanks to its doozy of a central concept. Having an actual matter of life and death at the center of this kind of comedy has a galvanizing effect on the usual loose-limbed, gangly humor. The pathos makes the film feel urgent and immediate even in its most hilariously digressive moments, and the frequent laughs come like sweet, cool breezes of relief in the face of the anxiety and dread that the main characters are coping with. And because this is clearly a film more driven by its plot and its jokes than by anything you could call thematically heady (a Judd Apatow essay film is something we will all just have to keep waiting for), I must proclaim that The Big Sick really is just a terrific story. It has the kind of joyful, unfussy plot that has the good sense not to get in its own way.
Then again, I just wouldn’t be true to my nature if I didn’t point out a theme or two, and The Big Sick wouldn’t be such an unexpectedly moving addition to the romantic comedy genre if it didn’t have some real thoughts on its mind. One way that The Big Sick adds even more resonance to an already powerful plot is by seamlessly folding in one of the most moving, well-observed looks at the experience of being an immigrant in America. Kumail’s identity as the son of Pakistani parents has a tremendous impact on the plot of the film, while also being intrinsically valuable as a lovingly candid window into his culture. Apatow himself has said that he, Nanjiani, Gordon, and Showalter all felt a lot of good would come just from the simple act of placing a Pakistani immigrant family on screen and just letting them be funny and human. The Big Sick touches on what it means to be Middle Eastern in our current American climate, and if it is not a searing indictment of xenophobia, it achieves something powerful just by allowing Kumail Nanjiani (a terrifically funny and gently disarming comedic presence) to tell a story with great, fully developed Pakistani-American characters. It is quite positive enough just to give voice and a moving narrative to a culture we do not often see on screens. But as with everything else in The Big Sick, the moving and the funny are very much in sync. The most heartening fact to me is that we now have a splendid comedy where Pakistani culture plays a pivotal role. The benefit of making a blissfully funny comedy about an underseen culture is that great comedy has a unique capacity to knock down irrational phobias and ignorance. Nanjiani’s approach, both as a comedian and now a screenwriter, is to use his humbe, self-effacing, and gently mocking comedic voice to simultaneously zero in on the peculiarities of his cultural back ground and to brush away the mystery and misconceptions surrounding it. I am happy for any film that gives us a view into another culture’s customs and unique social mores, but I am especially glad that this year gave me the chance to learn about a marginalized culture through a comedy this consistently side-splitting and humane. Once you have laughed, not simply at but with characters from a different culture, it becomes all the more difficult to think of them in an otherized way. As with so many Apatowian comedies, I left The Big Sick having gotten to know a whole host of relatable, fallible, spontaneous, funny people, but this time four of those people were lovingly drawn, well-observed characters of Pakistani descent and I cannot overstate the value of that basic act of representation. When it was over, I felt I knew an entire family of idiosyncratic, prickly, unique individuals with distinct personalities and aspirations. And even if you happen to be one of those filmgoers who think that the Apatow comedies meander and spend too much time just hanging out, I hope you will forgive that indulgence in this one case. Holywood invites people like the Najianis to just hang out much too rarely.
The Big Sick is not only an observant look at a Pakistani family, but something of a sweet love letter to family in general. One of my favorite things about the narrative structure of this film is how it spends well over running time not on the dating between the two main characters, but on the interactions between Kumail and Emily’s parents. In a way, one could argue the main romance of the film really is the one that develops between Kumail and the new family he realizes, almost too late, that he wants to be a part of. The interplay between Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano is a subtle master class of humor, tension, worried fatigue, and guarded hope, all butting up beautifully against one another. While Emily is conscious, Kumail is constantly balking at the prospect of meeting Emily’s parents, worried that he will then have to reveal her to his own family. And you can chalk this up to the fact that it really happened, but it adds a poignant dimension to the film that he ended up finally meeting them in this peculiar way, in these harrowing circumstances. So The Big Sick really is two romances: a sweet love story between a man and a woman and an entirely different kind of love story between that same man and his paramour’s family. It is about coming to love someone more through learning about the people who raised them. And while The Big Sick is too light on its feet to belabor or underline this point, the wide shadow of parents and family is a consistent emotional motif. The film becomes a beautiful meditation on the conflicting emotions that family brings out. The need to love our parents, repay their sacrifice, and also find a way to define ourselves outside of them. And what makes The Big Sick such a smartly plotted film is how the interactions with Emily’s parents, which Kumail conceals from his own family, give him insights in how to think about and interact with his own mother and father. It is through spending time with Beth and Terry that Kumail starts to see his parents with more dimension than he once did. During a night of bonding. as Kumail and Emily’s parents fight off their dread with bottles of wine, Beth explains to him how her North Carolina family hated her now-husband for many years. Kumail doesn’t tell Beth his fear that his own mother will disown him over loving Emily, but he asks her how she got over that familial obstacle. How did she make it work? “Lots of fucked up dinners,” she replies in that perfectly tart, winningly direct Holly Hunter way. This conversation plants the seed of Kumail’s growing courage to own up to his love for Emily. It stokes the grit to rebel against his parents. But the same conversation also makes him reflect on his love for them. As Beth talks about how she and Terry fell in love, Kumail realizes that he never found out what movie his mother and father saw on their first date. It was a question he had somehow never thought to ask them. Kumail starts out nervous and afraid of the Gordons; first fearful to meet them and then ashamed for hurting their daughter. But the lovely arc of the film is his decision to summon some trace amount of courage and stay with them through the ordeal; to own up to the hurt he caused Emily but to also assert himself. In finding the will to speak plainly to the Gordons and to also listen to them, he learns something valuable about parents. They are not crutches to depend on, nor tyrants to grovel before, nor ogres to be feared. Parents are just people and, even when they don’t see eye to eye with you, the right thing to do is to love them, listen to them, and also be yourself. To proceed stalwartly on your own journey, while also having empathy and curiosity for where their journeys have taken them.
And if there’s a third message to be gleaned in this delightfully funny film, I think it’s just about basic courage. And honesty. And standing up for one’s choices. If you group all those ideals together, I think what you end up with is that word so beloved by my late grandfather: gumption. It could scarcely be an Apatowian comedy, if a character didn’t have to stare down his growing pains and make the hard, fruitful decision to grow and change into their own version of an adult. And when I look at this wooly, lovable dramedy through the lens of gumption, it does start to attain its own shaggy kind of thematic coherence. Moving to a new country or a new city, committing to our first serious relationship and forming new bonds with our loved one’s loved ones, and redrawing old boundaries with the people who have known us all our lives. They all require self-determination, self-belief, and the summoning of our will power. They are what you need if you want to build a new life, and I really do think The Big Sick is about the first steps people take toward building a new life for themselves. To do so, we must make ourselves understand and believe that the pains of changing will be outweighed by the rewards to come. And if growth, change, maturity, and committing to a new course are all common tropes in the Apatow canon, I am not sure they have ever felt so thoughtfully reflected in every atom of the narrative as they have here. I must reiterate that The Big Sick is a consistently hilarious comedy before it is any kind of rigorous examination of stasis and transformation. But when I was done laughing until my sides hurt, what kept me warm for days afterwards was recalling how many kind-spirited, generous, and honest lessons this film offers about doing the right thing.
What I love most about The Big Sick probably just comes down to how lovely its tone is. Michael Showalter is not a director of any remarkable pyrotechnic skill. There is nothing remotely flashy in the film’s approach, and if I were judging on direction and editing alone, The Big Sick would not be anywhere near this high on my year-end list. But while it may lack anything formally impressive, The Big Sick is a film with a rather wonderful, understated sense of tone. It is the kind of tone that can have you feeling genuine pangs of sadness and concern for a character at the same time that you are audibly howling at the world’s best 9/11 joke. And for as much as I try to celebrate films that push the needle forward visually, sonically, and ideologically, there are also films that achieve their power through an invisible emotional undercurrent. When you get a film that can combine a wide gamut of emotions and make that blend feel seamless and intuitive, that is something special. To me, it is a skill every bit as worthy of praise as capturing a difficult shot or editing together a perfectly propulsive montage. I turned off The Big Sick with the deepest affection for all of its characters. I had experienced elation, dread, and sorrow. I had learned about a different culture and thought about the bonds of family. I had felt rich laughter rippling around uneasy knots in my stomach. And to me that is a magic trick all the more satisfying confounding for not being easy to visually identify. Like the very best films I saw this year, The Big Sick served me an impeccably mixed cocktail of humor, pathos, cultural insight, and conflict. It was a sweet beverage with subtle bitter notes and it sent me tripping back into the world with a damp, happy face. I stood in the warm, fading sunlight, buzzed, giddy, and ready to fall in love with humanity all over again.
I will start by begging preemptive forgiveness for anything awkward, inelegant, or, God forbid, downright problematic that I might write in this review. As I have said before, in fractious times such as these, I pray for films that stare down injustice, thrust oppressed perspectives into the foreground, and force us to engage with how we can do better by our fellow human beings. And I pray for such films for the very same reason that I often tremble at reviewing them. What often makes films like those brilliant is their ability to shine a floodlight on the comfortable status quo, and the comfortable status quo is certainly what I am. If I am watching a film with righteous power and scathing social insights, there is a very good chance that my own failings are right there in the crosshairs, staring back at me like shifty rodents. My privileged background, my protected skin color, my roundly accepted sexual orientation, and my own complicit cowardice. And if a film like Mudbound were not already eloquent enough at exposing the daily benefits I enjoy, then writing a review of this honest, ravishingly poetic portrait of America’s racial divide will surely finish me off. Allow me to strike the first blow against myself by presenting an inherently problematic idea. Art can be a Trojan Horse for just, humane ideas. It was a thought I remember having when I watched Ryan Coogler’s Creed a few years back. The immensely talented young black filmmaker set out to make the latest entry in the Rocky franchise and, as far as I’m concerned, gave the series its clear best film. I sat and watched the film with an enthralled, mostly white crowd in Danville, California, close to where I grew up. And, to be fair, I had no idea what any of the audience’s thoughts on race were, or their views on any particular social movement, or whether they considered racism to be a pressing modern day crisis. But I thought of Roger Ebert’s theory on movies as empathy machines and I watched a crowd of happy, enthusiastic, damp Caucasian faces leave the theater thoroughly moved by the story of a young black man coming to grips with his familial history and finding a reason to be proud of himself. And, please pardon my cynicism, but I do not think that even a quarter of those people would have been there to meet Adonis Creed and have that positive movie experience if the film was not part of a famous, popular boxing franchise. The Trojan Horse of a rousing, well-reviewed sports movie had smuggled in a sweet, frank, observant black coming-of-age story and slipped it under the guard of people who have likely not shown up just to see a young African-American man learning discipline and self-love as he becomes an adult in a new city. And now I am literally blushing with embarrassment for what I have just suggested. Because I know in my soul that this Trojan Horse theory is (and there is no better word) a fucked-up notion. Black narratives deserve to be told, and not just the ones that are charming and life-affirming, and certainly not just the ones that are agreeably packaged. It goes without saying that we should not need to sneak ideas about the dignity and self-worth of African-Americans in to the mainstream under the disguise of film tropes that are more traditional, palatable, or generally popular. But, with all that said, the bones of old standbys and reliably well-liked genres are there for any filmmaker who wants to use them. To sneak insights and new perspectives past our privileged guards. To get around our blinders and reinvigorate our empathy. To fool us into engaging with our better angels, the same way you might fool an infant into eating its peas. And it’s all very unfortunate that such measures are necessary, but I am glad that such measures exist. I do think this ability to place critical ideas inside a popular form of storytelling is a large part of the genius of Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Rees is an African-American woman and one of a few directors in 2017 to make rigorous, beautiful, compelling films about the experience of being black in America. Rees’ film is very upfront in being about racial disparities, but it dresses itself in the disarming classical finery of the old-fashioned Hollywood epic film. Rees knows that Americans have always had a soft spot for the prestige and massive scope of a big, lush period piece, and she has created the very best big, lush period piece since at least 2016’s Sunset Song.
Based off of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, Mudbound is the story of two families of sharecroppers tending to the same muddy plot of land in rural 1940s Mississippi. One family is black, the other is white, and we get to know all of their members very well over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes. The black family is the Jacksons, lovingly overseen by its gruff, kind patriarch, Hap (played exquisitely by Rob Morgan). Hap is a man constantly protecting the flame of his dignity from the howling wind of Mississippi bigotry; a man wo has learned to weather the ever-present racism of this corner of the world but has never felt right or easy about the stooping it demands. His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige, in a quietly lovely, sensitive, Oscar-nominated performance) feels as wounded as Hap does about the sacrifice and soul-sapping compromise of surviving this time and place, but she moves with this treacherous landscape with a kind of understated grace. Florence is a figure of both beautiful strength and sad resignation, focused on the safety and well-being of her family and acutely aware that shepherding them through this cruel country will require a daily denial of herself. The Jacksons have been diligently working their rented patch of land for decades, hoping to one day purchase it, when their white co-tenants, the McAllans, arrive. The head of the household is Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke, doing fine, solid work in what is probably the film’s most thankless role), a stubborn, taciturn company man who has uprooted his wife and infant daughter from their quiet, suburban lives to pursue a dream, or more truthfully a sudden whim, of becoming a farmer. His wife, Laura (a very strong performance that only looks effortless because it’s coming from Carey Mulligan), insists that she never knew anything of her husband’s agrarian aspirations. Their marriage seems to be one built more on material need and mutual companionship than on any real sense of love. It certainly does not seem to be built on communication. Laura is a woman of some sensitivity and culture, which leads her to have a much deeper bond with Henry’s charismatic, university-educated younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, originally of Tron fame). Hedlund here sheds all of his handsome lunkhead persona to give one of this phenomenally acted film’s two best performances. The film’s most poignant and perfectly acted character is the Jackson family’s eldest son, Ronsell (Jason Mitchell, who has already been terrific as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and seems to only be hitting his stride). Ronsell and Jamie spend at least half of the film separated from their respective families, as both volunteer to fight overseas in World War II, Jamie as a bomber pilot and Ronsell as a tank commander. Finally, there is Henry’s despicable, seething bigot of a father, Pappy (the great Jonathan Banks, of Breaking Bad fame), who Henry has invited to live with them, to the utter dismay and disgust of his wife. Pappy is an irredeemable, unrepentant open sewer of hate and hurt, unflagging in his contempt for any non-white person and incapable of the slightest show of warmth or mild fondness toward his long-suffering family. The main thrust of the film are the parallel, diverging, and dovetailing stories of this large ensemble. The story begins in earnest when Henry shows up at the doorway of a nice single-story house in town, telling the confused owner that he gave a man $200 for an oral agreement to purchase the property. As fate would have it, that man immediately sold the house to the man now standing in the doorway and hastily left town, leaving Henry with no deed, no house, and $200 less to his name. “You got swindled,” Pappy sneers at him. With scan options and very little money, Henry moves his family out to the Jacksons plot to sharecrop there. Henry McAllan makes his introduction by interrupting the Jackson family’s dinner and coercing Hap into helping him unpack in the middle of the night, while a not remotely grateful Pappy glares at him through suspecting eyes. And while there is a great deal of plot that unfolds in dense, rich detail, the film is really just the story of how all these people coexist and drift around each other’s orbit. Mudbound is chiefly the story of these two poor families with different skin colors, eking out a meager existence in the nation’s most racist state in the years during and immediately following the Second World War. Eventually, Jamie and Ronsell come home from battle and rejoin the main narrative, bringing with them an understanding that the fascist battlefields of 1940s Germany are more turbulent and in some ways more hospitable than the farmlands of the 1940s American South. And this very detailed synopsis, or more pointedly the fact that it does not even begin to sum up the film, should give you a sense of what a full-throated, staggeringly epic film Mudbound is. It may sound daunting, and I will concede that I finished both my viewings emotionally spent. But what I want to convey is just how soulful, heartfelt and alive Mudbound is; how filigreed it is with color, sound, dialogue, poetry, and richly observed characters.
I would like to revisit the notion of the artistic Trojan Horse and temper it a bit where Mudbound is concerned. Because it is not quite right to say that Dee Rees is using the historical epic to disguise her interest in racial strife. Anyone who reads that Mudbound involves a family of black sharecroppers in 1940s Mississippi and does not expect to encounter the issue of racism probably needs to refamiliarize themselves with American history, or Mississippi history at the very least. It’s not that the trappings of the big, beautiful historical epic really hides any of the issues that Rees is confronting. It is more accurate to say that the sensory pleasure of watching Mudbound and being transported to its time and place is so exquisitely mounted that it becomes something of a mandatory viewing experience for anyone who just enjoys a lavish, meticulously curated historical drama. Mudbound is not quite the longest film on my year-end list, but it is certainly the one that feels the most overwhelmingly detailed. Like last year’s Sunset Song, its epic Irish cousin, part of Mudbound’s accomplishment is in making the dust and grime of an arduous agrarian lifestyle look so ruggedly beautiful. Moreover, it is an honest kind of beauty. The images of flooded fields and green trees popping against the dark brown landscape and every possible shade of that titular mud are all gorgeous, but in a way that never lets you forget how taxing it must have been to hoe and till and hack at this stubborn land. And the wealth of detail only begins with Rachel Morrison’s (the first woman ever nominated for a Cinematography Oscar) lusciously stark lensing. Those stunning images take place in a vast, unfurling tapestry of a story, populated by no less than six major characters, each of whom stake their claim to being the film’s key protagonist. I am wary of overusing the word “novelistic”, but it is not simply an accurate descriptor for Mudbound; it is the essential adjective. Mudboundis a film to give words like “dense” and “overwhelming” a good name. It is a hearty cinematic meal, to be sure, but it does not feel bloated or stretched thing, the way so many of its historical epic brethren do. It proceeds patiently, but each scene, beat, and frame feels immediate. In rewatching Mudbound, I took so much time noting poetic turns of phrase that I would momentarily forget to not its lovely frames and saturated color palette. Then, when I stopped to feebly try to write something about the grit and grandeur of the images, I would struggle to capture the vividness of its lyrical, powerful screenplay. Very little time passes over Mudbound’s 135 minutes when it is not simultaneously one of the most splendidly composed and sumptuously written films of the year. At a certain point, I had to limit my note-taking and just trust my memory to do its humble best. To fully honor its shots, I would need a giant coffee table photography book. To fully capture its florid, soulful writing, I would essentially have to rewrite its script. The only true way to experience the splendor and immense emotional undertow of Mudbound is to take it in with your own eyes and ears.
All this lovely detail, both visual and verbal, enables me to sincerely applaud Mudbound as the vwery best kind of grand, sprawling, old-fashioned film. It’s the kind of epic they scarcely make anymore and that were rarely made with such vibrant detail when they did make them. But Mudbound is also a thematically rich work, which gives it a kind of cerebral heft that is even more rare in the prestigious historical dramas that are its contemporaries. The themes of Mudbound largely fall into a discourse between the nation that binds us together and the persistent racial prejudice that overpowers that sense of national unity. The idea of unity is represented through the notion of mud, dirt, and land, which are constant motifs throughout the film. Mudbound opens with a scene set late into its narrative, as Henry and Jamie plunging shovels into the thick Mississippi mud. Pappy has died and they are rushing to dig a grave for him before a heavy rainstorm floods the grave. As they dig deeper, Henry finds another body from many decades ago. There are manacles next to the skeleton and the skull has been pierced by a bullet hole. Henry and Jamie have found the old grave of a runaway slave. Henry insists that Pappy would recoil at being buried in the same resting place as a slave, but the old racist is dead and there is no time to start digging anew. So Pappy is laid to rest in the same place as a man who he would have called beneath him. The poignant, acerbic idea of this scene, and of Mudbound in general, is that all the struggle and injustice and bloodshed throughout the centuries, from the beginning of slavery to the present-day, is all tied to the soil of this one single place we call a country. It is an idea that sounds almost too simple, but Rees’ sense for tone and character, and the beautiful prose of her source material tease this idea out thoughtfully until it becomes a thing of elegiac resonance. Rees is not saying something so facile as that all the racial divisions between white and black Americans are smoothed out over the simple sharing of a piece of land, be it a grave or a country. But I believe she is positing that, no matter what happens, being countrymen fates us to share a story. Pappy’s story, in the end, is that for all his hate and his feelings of superiority over anyone who didn’t look like him, he was always fated to die and come to rest in the same mud as the people he despised and tormented. And the land will now keep his final chapter and hold it together with the final chapter of that murdered slave, and if anyone comes digging decades later, they will find that 19th century skeleton in his shackles right next to that spiteful cur who died in the 1940s and that will be fitting. Not because time makes things okay and not because in death they are not so different, but because those two people, and so many other slaves, masters, victims, and aggressors are part of the same blood-soaked book. And now the illusion of time, probably only some 80 years anyway, can be shattered and the constant Earth can hold Pappy and this slave right next to each other where they belong. It can keep the two side by side, one shot and unceremoniously dumped here like an animal and the other laid here in a cheap wood coffin, far better than he deserved but all the better to evidence a blunt truth of this American epic we are penning. That not every dead soul in this country got to be buried by its family, and not every man was afforded the right to die decently. Mudbound has plenty to say about the different path black Americans have had to walk, but it is also saying something poignant, disturbing, and scathing about how Americans of every race are bound together in the same violent, leather-bound tome; the same national narrative.
The other voice in Mudbound’s direct but nuanced conversation is the one that knows a sense of unity has always been something of an American myth. The folly of that myth is there in the repeated motif of the Jackson family’s interrupted dinners. The black family’s sanctuary of peace and loving kinship is repeatedly invaded by the loud knocking of the McAllan patriarch, insisting on some favor or bit of assistance from Hap or Florence. And the mixture of frustration and wounded pride we see wash over Hap’s face lays the truth bare, that even some 80 years after Abolition, Hap and his family are at this insignificant white man’s beck and call. And the possibility that Henry McAllan doesn’t quite register the coercive sway he holds over the Jacksons makes this imbalance all the more insidious, infuriating, and scary. It is present in the way Florence swallows her pride and accepts work caring for the McAllan children, optimistically telling herself the extra money will be good for her family. Still, she reminisces in voiceover about how her own mother spent her daylight hours tending to white babies while her young daughter mostly had to settle for seeing her in the dark. Mudbound is about the sad, aggravating truth of what it has meant, and still means, to be black in this country, and how easy it is for a group of people to brush that truth aside or ignore it when they do not have to live with it day after day. The McAllans and the Jacksons both live hard, dirty lives, but the problem is that this shared hardship makes it too easy for the McAllans to live in ignorance of how much more strenuous this grueling lifestyle is for a black family. Both households go to bed with grubby fingers and throbbing muscles, but the Jacksons also have to tend to a constant ache in their spirits. The McAllan’s myopia even extends to the most enlightened member of the family, Jamie. And it is here where I believe Dee Rees feel the most anguish about the sweet sincere hope for understanding and friendship across the racial divide and how it just cannot be that simple. Not in this country with this history and these sins buried in its soil. The friendship between Jamie McAllan and Ronsell Jackson is the emotional lynchpin of Mudbound, which is quite a feat considering that the two do not meet until 90 minutes into the film and everything that comes before that is beautiful and powerful and completely moving. But those scenes of the two returned soldiers, played with such exquisite empathy by Jason Mitchell and Garret Hedlund, allow Mudbound to be both a prayer for hope and brotherhood and an unflinching account of how hope can also be a scary thing. Ronsell and Jamie’s connection, their shared empathy over the horrors they have seen, and the sudden appreciation each one feels for having found a kindred spirit made me beam and wince all at once. Because even something as intuitive and natural as two good men becoming friends cannot entirely escape the corrosion of the toxic air around it. And the most damning, emotionally gutting thing about their arc together is how even a smart, compassionate man like Jamie cannot quite grasp Ronsell’s reality. He cannot quite see that, even as an educated, benign white man, he poses a danger to his dear black friend. Mudbound is about the experience of being black in American, but it is also a very effective critique of the full gamut of white ignorance: from Pappy’s bilious racism, through Henry’s apathy and Laura’s well-intentioned equivocating, to the naivete of someone like Jamie thinking they can glide over centuries of entrenched bigotry just by being one of the good ones. Through all of this, Mudbound holds on to traces of optimism. Though the story goes to some unspeakably tragic places, it has hope its heart. But if that hope is to mean anything, it must be clear-eyed, and that means recognizing that our problems have never been one and the same. This country’s best hopes won’t be realized until the last of us stops trying to pretending otherwise.
Mudbound plays beautifully as an amazingly well-acted, gorgeously detailed American epic with just a touch more arsenic in its veins. And maybe part of that is using the appealing form of a large ensemble epic to house subversive, trenchant ideas that are not always present in films of this kind. At the same time, I do not feel Rees is attempting a deception here. I think the moral is that, for the 200-plus year American saga, this idea of a land that unites with one hand and divides with the other, has always been in the very text of the story. If it has been more implicit and less pronounced in the past, then perhaps it is time we told the story of this country more candidly. Even Mudbound’s musical score feels like the vibrant, subversive hybrid of something both familiar and radical. The guitar strings and low tones evoke the muck and dusty, hot days of a Mississippi summer, but there are subtle tweaks that make the melodies sound discordant, almost decaying. It sounds like an acoustic blues band sinking slowly into a swamp. Mudbound is an old song sung not necessarily in a modern way, but with an awareness of the present day and how little has really changed in the decades between. Many of the same old stories are being told. But what is blessedly changing, however slowly, is the diverse range of people who are now able to tell those stories. In 2017, I watched an old-style, swelling Southern historical epic. It was not the first time I had seen that kind of movie, but this time a black woman was behind the camera. And that, as it turns out, makes a world of difference.
I’m not what you would call a particularly morbid person. Singin’ In the Rain sits high atop my list of the best films ever made, I still become unabashedly jovial during the Christmas season, and I have an unquenchable thirst for the gangly, lyrical humanism of Richard Linklater films. Still, like most people, I have moments where I engage myself in a few too many sips of the world’s darkness. This is always predictably followed by anywhere between a day and a week where I dearly wish I hadn’t done that. I watch too much of the news or read about one tragedy too many, and my spirit essentially becomes inebriated from taking in too much sadness all at once. For lack of a more accurate word, I become haunted. I have come to accept these periodic bouts of melancholy as the natural side effect of staying engaged with and reasonably informed about the world I live in. Falling under sorrow’s hypnotic spell from time to time is just a part of being alive. Feeling unsettled is the inevitable hangover that comes from having too much to think. One of the main problems with that heavy feeling though is that it has a weird way of making the tedium of everyday life, which I might ordinarily breeze through with a chipper attitude and an obliging smile, feel aggravatingly arbitrary and unwelcome. Personal Shopper is the second, consecutive ghost story on my year-end list, and it’s one of the better evocations of what it’s like to feel sad, spooked out, and emotionally unnerved; to move through the tangible world while simultaneously occupying a disconnected realm of one’s own thoughts, terrors, and emotions. I have to believe we all feel a little spectral from time to time, even if we do not believe in ghosts. Personal Shopper is the kind of ghost story where being haunted is both a supernatural phenomenon and an all too human state of mind. And by way of giving you a nice, easy entry point into the year’s most daringly austere and potentially cryptic films, allow me to say that Personal Shopper should have some degree of relatability to anyone who has ever found themselves trudging through the long, uneasy doldrums of a grief-stricken, haunted, or just generally moody time in their life.
With that said, I would not want to misrepresent Personal Shopper as being particularly easy to digest. It would create some detrimental expectations for the viewer if I didn’t say upfront that it is one the year’s most mysterious, chilly and challengingly opaque works of cinema. Moreover, it would do a disservice to the film itself. Olivier Assayas’ (Summer Hours, The Clouds of Sils Maria) strange, preposterously masterful hybrid of spare character study, supernatural mood piece, and psychothriller is a quietly tense, defiantly unsettling film. The film itself is a bit like a stubborn, confrontational ghost. It is a riveting experience in its own strange, moody way but it is the furthest thing from being ingratiating. Personal Shopper is the story of Maureen, a young American woman living in Paris. She is outstandingly played by Kristen Stewart, the first American actor in history to win the Cesar award (France’s answer to the Oscar), and now in full stride as the rare movie star who knows how to anchor a subdued, cerebral art film. Maureen is the titular personal shopper and the film’s protagonist. Her work entails going to high-end fashion galleries and picking out clothes for a vain fashion icon. She has absolutely no enthusiasm for her laughably frivolous day job, but she has her own reason for keeping it. Maureen is a medium. Her twin brother, Lewis, who was also a medium, passed away from a heart attack nine months earlier. As a medium, Lewis was more fervently committed than his sister. He believed wholeheartedly in the existence of a spirit realm, while Maureen always remained skeptical. When Lewis was alive, he and Maureen promised each other that whoever outlived the other would stay around the city where they died long enough to see if the deceased’s spirit would make some kind of spiritual contact. Despite her doubts, Maureen tells her boss’ boyfriend that she owes her dear brother’s soul a chance to prove his own deeply held belief. She spends many nights staying in the empty, palatial house that Lewis once shared with his French girlfriend, wandering around its darkened rooms and hallways. She has recently sensed a spirit in the house, but she is fearful that this ghost might not be her brother. The cause of much of Maureen’s strife and tension is that, in choosing to leave her mind and heart open for her brother to communicate with her, she is giving all her mental energy over to death and the unknown. Personal Shopper is the story of an overwhelmed young woman trying to come to terms with the grief she feels for her lost twin, wrestle her fears that she might die from the same condition, and maintain some semblance of emotional stability, while spending almost every waking moment thinking about ghosts. And of course, those waking moments not taken up with trying to keep her ear cocked toward the netherworld are taken up by the surreal banality of buying boots, dresses and belts for a flighty, temperamental celebrity.
One of the key ideas in Personal Shopper is that feeling one has when they remembers that they are alone on a confusing, chaotic planet, orbiting a single star in a universe filled with countless other stars, unsure of where they fit into it all, and that they have to go get up and edit nondisclosure agreements. Or fix Honda Civics. Or buy overpriced leather pants for someone who models overpriced leather pants for a living. And that’s just the normal kind of workaday ennui we’re talking about. It becomes an entirely different matter when we factor in the juggernauts of grief, depression, and isolation. Olivier Assayas could have had Maureen work in any modern profession, but part of the reason that a personal shopper works so well for this story is that it is such an extraneous, unmistakably modern line of work. The tension Maureen feels is not just that she must spend her days being distracted from the cosmically, weight matters that call out to her, but that she is being called away from that by something so staggeringly unimportant. Paris is a tomb to Maureen. It is the place where she lost the person she clearly loved most in this world. The only reason she is hanging around this dismal town, by her own admission is that she wants to make contact. The wry commentary of the film seems to be that, if Maureen is trying to call out to the inscrutable, ageless heavens, what profession could be less timeless, less universal, and less consequential in the grand scheme than specializing in knowing what garments one famous mortal likes to wear? Maureen laments that tending to her rich boss’ errands is keeping her from matters of real importance and Kristen Stewart subtly conveys how much more aggravating a ridiculous job must seem when you are not only wracked with grief but have also literally glimpsed the spiritual fabric of existence.
The counterpoint to all this is that the obligatory, frivolous, and trite minutiae of life is also an undeniable component of existence. And more importantly, those silly things are part of what it means to be alive. While Maureen is certainly right to feel that designer harnesses and plunging, silver-sequined gowns look superficial next to the grand questions of what happens after we die, the ability to covet shiny baubles and think about fashion is something we only have while we are breathing. Because, in her heart of hearts, Maureen is not just put off by the superficial details of her dayjob. In her bereaved, haunted state, she is really having trouble relating to the living world in general. It is not just the glossy trappings of privileged society that disinterest her, but the entire humdrum experience of being alive. This is the lure of sadness and death-obsession. It makes it harder to willingly go back to living world with all its ridiculous extravagances and absurd rituals. But those silly cotton candy wisps of fashion and pop music and blind dates and dumb day jobs are what life is. Monotonous and superficial as they are, to be alive is to give ourselves over to those things and fool ourselves into thinking they mean much more than they do. Much as we can empathize with Maureen’s gripes about the emptiness of her daily grind, it is also very clear that her investigation into the mysteries of death has led her to cross over into that realm; to carry it in her very bones, even as she seems to occupy the living world. When Lewis’ girlfriend bashfully reveals that she has begun dating again, she explains to Maureen, “I think now I want life.” Personal Shopper is about a woman who cannot convince herself to really want life again. It presents the idea that there are pockets of death floating around within life, and that there is a difference between breathing and actually feeling alive. It is not to say that Maureen is suicidal, that she actually wants death. But in the wake of her twin’s untimely passing, she is perhaps more aware than ever that death is all around us. What makes Personal Shopper such a well-observed portrait of dejection is how it paints depression, loneliness, and bereavement as a kind of underwater limbo. The nagging duties and repetitive interactions of normal life become nuisances repeatedly trying to permeate grief’s bubble. Personal Shopper plays as both an actual ghost story and as a symbolic one, where the spectres of loss and melancholy become phantasms unto themselves. What lingers about the film is how much moody tone it wrings just from watching Maureen process her raw, unsettled mental state. Assayas, whose lovely Summer Hours made the fate of a country house in a mother’s will feel impossibly soulful, is a director with a style that is both artistically rigorous and quite unfussy. He does not need to show us too many shrieking phantoms or levitating objects to make Maureen’s world feel possessed by a spirit of foreboding. He conjures up a thundercloud of disquieting emotion without having to make very much of it visible, and the occasional direct encounters Maureen has with supernatural phenomena feel all the more startling for how sparingly they are shown. The true accomplishment is how spaces that might feel warm or innocuous in a different context feel frigid; the lush, lamplit streets of Paris or the bright-white, modernistic showrooms of haute couture shops. Assayas creates a masterclass in slow-burning tension without really ever relying on jump scares or frightful imagery. Instead, he achieves this beautifully unsettling sense of tone through a tight focus on Stewart’s observant, anxious performance and an elegant sense of composition that helps keep us trapped in the damp mausoleum of her tormented headspace.
And beyond just showing off that Assayas can conjure up a whole lot of mood with barely a flick of his wrist, I do find a greater thematic purpose in his relatively minimalist approach to creating an atmosphere of disquiet. Because Personal Shopper is about the kind of internal shiver that doesn’t just dissipate as soon as we turn all the lights on and fire up the space heater. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of your typical gothic horror film. Apart from the nights she spends in her late brother’s dark house, we spend most of our time watching Maureen in broad daylight, or at least in bright, populated spaces. She rides her scooter through crowded French streets and walks through bright, funky fashion lobbies and rides packed commuter trains. Maureen is frequently not by herself in the dark, but that fact brings no comfort. None of it makes the fearful pallor drop away from her face, and this is what makes Personal Shopper its own unique spin on the ghost story. We so often think of ghosts as something one hears out in the woods or in the creaking floorboards of an old, abandoned building, but Olivier Assayas’ aim is to tell a haunting story under the glaring, neon daylight of our bright, technologically-enhanced 21st century world. The film’s best and most nerve-wracking scene finds Maureen about to board a high-speed train to London with the latest smart phone in her hand. On her way to the train, she receives a sinister, mysterious text message from an unknown number. Whoever this is, they claim to know her and to be watching her at that moment. The phantom text messenger asks her prying questions, prods her about her deepest fears and desires, and angrily chastises her when she waits too long to respond. We see Maureen’s expression go ashen as something as seemingly banal as a text exchange rattles her sense of safety. Maureen, deeply afraid but also perversely curious, gets pulled into an eerie, sinister dance with her own insecurities. This could be a ghost or maybe just a human being who got her number from someone she works with. Is it a malicious phantasm or just some immature prankster amusing himself at her expense? The truth of the scene is that it doesn’t necessarily matter who this particular messenger is. What does matter is the suggestion that a more fast-paced, glitzy and modern world cannot keep our phantoms at bay. If we can believe in something as fantastic as a spirit realm, it really isn’t such a stretch to believe that those spirits could also learn to use an iPhone. The suggestion is that the ghostly presences that have haunted human beings since time immemorial, be they real or psychological, are not going to stop just because our world has grown more technologically advanced. As far as we advance, we will never invent a gadget to stop the chill that runs down our back when we sense feel ill at ease. These haunted feelings, and the tantalizing, unanswerable questions that come with them, are timeless. The glow of our screens and neon billboards are as powerless to repel our dread as the candles and torches of centuries past.
At one point, Maureen takes a trip to the sun-bleached mountains of Morocco to visit her boyfriend. She can finally stand no more of the bone-chilling cold she feels in her soul, and she hopes all that brilliant, blinding sunlight will scatter away some of the deathly shadows hanging about her. It doesn’t work. But, as the film draws to a close, I believe we are finally seeing a version of Maureen that wants to let go of the spectres of grief and death. Like her brother’s girlfriend, I think Maureen is trying as hard as she can to want life again. Maybe the lesson here is that we don’t always have complete control when it comes to feeling blue and bewitched. Spirits, whether real or just in our heads, seem to have a mind of their own, and sometimes we have to wait for them to leave us in their own good time. I began this week and the early scribblings of this very review in a pretty powerful gloomy spell of my own, though I feel that shadow lifting as I write these last words. Part of what makes Personal Shopper such a beautiful, original piece of work is that I do not believe it is trying to be too didactic about sadness, despondency, grief, or any other ghostly emotion that overtakes us from time to time. It seems content to observe that life is full of light and shadow and sometimes the latter throws its weight around and holds sway over the former. Life is so often a tug-of-war between the warm glow of silly little pleasures and the anxiety of matters that are heavier and less benign. Laughter and sorrow. Top 40 radio and civil wars. First dates and unspeakable tragedies. Finding a new pair of shoes and losing loved ones. It is enough to say that life is mysterious and beautiful and otherworldly powerful in its contrasts. And that is true before one dips so much as a toe into matters of ghosts and spiritual netherworlds. Our emotions and our imaginations have a mystical, elemental power all their own. It is stunning to think how much joy, heartbreak, curiosity, and terror course through us. From time to time, everyone’s head can turn into a haunted house. And so I watch the lights of my own house flicker back on, as they always do. And the heater starts working again and I can breathe easy until the next time the wind starts blowing all the shutters open. What else can be said? I have no interest in putting a period or exclamation mark on this misty question mark of a film. This ethereal, moaning banshee of a movie is about the dark spaces within us that will always feel unsettled, uncivilized, and unresolved. I can stop reviewing the film, but grappling with the feelings it evokes will always be unfinished business.
This is clearly a counter-intuitive way to start a review. It was the first idea to cross my mind when I finished my second viewing of the film four days ago, and I told myself right there and then that I could surely come up with a better point of entry for discussing this worthy film. More than that, I could certainly come up with an opening sentence less likely to achieve the exact opposite of its intended effect. Alas, after five days of thinking about it, I have thought of no other way to begin. So I will now open my review by firmly asserting that David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is not a pretentious film. However, I first watched the film with my fiancé, who insisted early and often over the lean 92-minute runtime, that it was in fact a very pretentious film. Now, I have no desire to turn this review into a referendum on my fiance’s excellent taste in cinema. Her reasons that A Ghost Story did not work for her are well-reasoned and valid. I am not here to call out anyone who liked, loved, hated, was confused by, or slept through this heady little piece of art cinema. But I am here to settle an old score with the word “pretentious”. I am tempted to say I loathe the word, but that is not entirely fair. I do not hate “pretentious” when the word applies, but I do hate it for how liberally it is misapplied. To me, pretentious films are films that purport to mean more than they actually do. A pretentious work is that old line about sound and fury signifying nothing; a great commotion of superficial flash or pedigree, disguising an empty, or at least relatively meager, core of meaning. Again, it is well and good to call something pretentious if that is what you actually mean. I will crow for the rest of my days that Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a pretentious film because what I mean to say is that it makes a great fuss without saying much of value. It would be wrong to use that word if all I really meant was that Birdman is a loud, grandiloquent film, or that it sermonizes too sanctimoniously, or that it has makes too many self-consciously idiosyncratic choices. To be fair, those are all quibbles I have with Birdman, but none of them are what makes it pretentious. Yet that seems to be what the word “pretentious” is metastasizing into: a dismissive term to call out a work of art for being too ambitious or arty. And I’m not calling out this misuse just to be a vocabulary fascist. I am not simply annoyed that a word is having its meaning distorted. Specifically, I find this zombie version of pretentiousness to be dangerous and oppressive to what art should be allowed to do. It is a valuable part of artistic discourse to critique a work of art when it takes a bold shot and misses its target. But the tendency I see nowadays is to use “pretentious” as a means of attacking bold shots in general, regardless of whether they actually hit their marks. And that, from where I stand, is death to Art. Art needs to be free to take risks and pursue ridiculous flights of fancy. It needs to be permitted the hubris to attempt new things and wrap its arms around difficult subjects and risk biting off more than it can chew. Artists should be encouraged to make breathtaking, idiosyncratic, indulgent, imaginative works because those strange, overreaching works of art can help us better understand, appreciate, or even change our own reality. And we jeopardize that when we rush to label any work that is surreal or highly stylized or maybe a bit self-regarding as pretentious. In the world of cinema, this word has become a way of superficially fast-tracking judgment of a film based on its aesthetic, when what we should be doing is discussing what the film is trying to do or say.
A Ghost Story is a weird, audacious film, but let me relieve some of the build-up by saying that it is also, at heart, a relatively simple story, at least where plot is concerned. David Lowery’s title prepares us for the fact that we will likely see a ghost, and indeed we do. What it does not prepare us for is the fact that the ghost in question is our main character, and will be the one consistent, visible presence throughout almost the entire film. And, most of all, it does not prepare us for the fact that this ghost will be played by Casey Affleck, completely covered in a plain white sheet with two oval-shaped eyeholes cut out of it. This ghost was once a man living in Dallas in a small, one-story house with his wife (Rooney Mara, in a performance no less terrific for being right in her moody, pensive wheelhouse). The couple is in the process of moving and an early conversation reveals that the man is reluctant to say goodbye to this place and the memories that reside within its walls. One night the couple is woken up by something striking the keys of their piano. They walk into the family room to investigate, but find nothing. Then they go back to bed a little shaken, and try to soothe each other back to sleep. In the next scene, possibly the very next morning, we see the man dead at the wheel of his car, the victim of a small but fatal collision. His wife goes to the morgue to identify him, places the sheet back over his body, and sadly leaves. Then a few beats pass and the man’s shrouded head rises from the table. He is now a ghost, though the exaggerated black eye holes mark him as being closer to what a small child would dress as for Halloween than some menacing horror movie spectre. In his unadorned way, he is quite simply the saddest, most despondent ghost I have ever seen in a film. Covered in his sheet, he trudges uncertainly through the hospital. He goes completely unnoticed. He walks on to the end of a hallway until a kind of glowing, cosmic doorway opens up on one of the walls. He stands in front of the portal, stares at it blankly, but refuses to go through it. Instead, he walks out of the hospital into the cool dawn air and begins walking toward something he knows. He moves silently through the muddy, green Texas fields and over the quiet two-lane highways and back into the small, one-story dwelling he once called home. And then he just stays there. His wife mourns and putters around in a daze and, in perhaps the film’s most instantly iconic scene, eats an entire condolence gift pie in a single, four minute long-take. And the ghost stands about and watches her grieve. Then life begins to pick up speed again. The wife starts to live again and leave the house. She goes back to work. She even starts to seek companionship. We watch her painstakingly move on from her tragedy, while also watching, somewhere in the background of every shot, the restless, pitiable apparition that refuses to move on. Eventually, the wife summons the courage to move out and leave this tomb of memories behind. But this drab, lost ghost refuses to go. Even as a new family moves in. Even as time races on and even as the very building he binds himself to falls into disrepair, this sad, stubborn being cannot seem to leave this place behind. A Ghost Story is, first and foremost, a reimagining of the haunted house film as a kind of bittersweet tone poem. It is a reclamation of the ghost story as something more sad than scary, and all the more haunting for trading jump scares for melancholy.
And if my aim is to convince you that there is nothing in the least pretentious about A Ghost Story, I guess the next sentence will make my case more difficult. You see, A Ghost Story is all about its own sense of mood. It’s a difficult thing to create a film where tone and ambience do the heavy lifting. The shallows of film history are littered with the wrecks of indulgent pictures that fatally prioritized crafting a heady, introspective reverie above all else. Many sensitive, poetic filmmakers have doomed themselves by following what we might call the siren song of Terrence Malick. But A Ghost Story happily avoids that sorry fate, partly because it does have a lot of other things going on aside from a dreamy tone: engaged performances, skillful camera work, cohesive snippets of narrative always running through the ghost’s mournful fugue state, and one of the year’s most devastatingly sublime scores. I also have to say that, when it comes to mood, the proof is in the pudding, and David Lowery really has whipped up a delicious pudding. Part of the thrill is how he takes something like the haunted house narrative and recontextualizes it as something wise, tender, and bruisingly sad. That tender, eerily heartbroken sense of mood that Lowery focuses on is there for a purpose. It forces us to see an old narrative with fresh eyes. When Affleck’s ghost starts whipping plates around the room to frighten a Mexican single mother and her two young children out of their new home, we are getting a new perspective on something we have seen in countless spooky films. But this time we know exactly what is going on and our reaction is not terror. We are sad because we feel the ghost’s anguish and pain and we are also frustrated by him. He is not some fearful, unknown phantasm with hidden motives. He is just a despondent spirit, petulantly taking his grief out on small children, and he should know better. A Ghost Story strikes a deft balance between sorrow, small glimmers of joy (as when we see Rooney Mara tearfully but triumphantly leave her old house behind), fear, fragility, and even the odd bit of levity. If you let A Ghost Story wash around you as a purely emotional experience, what you get is a pitch perfect symphony of mortality, the ache of loving and then having to let go, and the sting of remembering that we are all falling rapidly through time and out of the Earth’s memory.
And the fact that A Ghost Story can capture that sense of mortality and human frailty just through its tone and things unsaid turns out to be a huge achievement, because the finiteness of life and the pain of accepting our insignificance is also what the film is getting at on an intellectual level. David Lowery manages to craft a tone poem that coherently aligns its undulating, poetic emotions with its themes and ideas, which gives A Ghost Story a welcome sense of rigor. The difficulty of letting go is smartly set up from the beginning, as we meet a couple with very different feelings about leaving their old house behind. That conflict culminates in one of the year’s most phenomenally moving moments: the wife wistfully but resolutely driving away from the home and her dead past, with the ghost trapped in the frame of the house’s front window and swiftly receding in his wife’s rearview mirror. The film comes to a place somewhere between sympathetic understanding and matter of fact disagreement with Affleck’s ghost. Life is beautiful and sweet and having to finally leave it all behind for the unknown is a gutting thing. You really can’t blame anyone for finding it hard to say goodbye. But, on the other hand, even if you had the choice to never leave your life, would staying around indefinitely not also suck something vital out of you? Sooner or later, the places that were familiar to us and with us, be they our homes, our towns, or our planet, go on existing without us. One day, the Earth will become a high school that we graduated from five years ago. The last freshman student who knew us will have finally left. At that point, what value could there be to continually going back there; to staying there and walking the halls? In one scene of the film, the ghost watches the house’s newest tenants throw a party full of people in their thirties. A man, played by celebrated indie musician Will Oldham, gives a long, intoxicated rant on the folly and futility of creating things to preserve our legacies, be they songs, books, or children, when we know the Universe will one day implode and start all over again. It’s a polarizing scene that some critics have called didactic. Personally, when it came, I found some relief in hearing a human voice speak at length for the first time in many minutes. But it is true that the Oldham character is just saying what the film itself says with every fiber of its being. It makes the same point more succinctly just a moment later. This room full of humans is reveling and the party is in full swing, when the ghost suddenly causes the kitchen lights to flicker. Then we instantly cut to the house abandoned and neglected. In an instant, many years may have just passed by and all the human faces who were celebrating in that house just seconds ago have scattered to continue along their own separate paths.
The lesson, both upsetting and strangely life-affirming, is that life’s value does not come from a place. What gives life its character is the fleeting minutiae and the ephemeral joys. And above all, life is the people we meet and learn about and love, who are all just as frail and impermanent as we are. What the ghost learns eventually is that, without all those little passing details, time hurtles forward like a bullet train. The sad, strange, stirring truth is that everything that ever made us feel anything and everything we ever assigned meaning occupies a very small space and an equally miniscule pocket of time, and that all confirms the plain fact that our lives are tiny and fragile. Without all that lovely, evanescent bric-a-brac; without music, memories, parties, food, sex, and people, the buildings and towns and time periods we occupy are just empty spaces. The big expanses of space and time that surround our lives look a whole lot smaller without all those little, fleeting details inside of them. I have stood in enough apartments on moving day to feel that intimately. I have walked down enough old streets in neighborhoods where I used to live to grasp the bittersweet truth that life is about context, and most of that context comes from things that are not meant to last. A Ghost Story is about mustering the grace and the courage to leave things behind, be it a former hometown or a past life. Knowing you must say goodbye is the right attitude to have, not only because it is emotionally healthy, but also because, as Rooney Mara’s character says early in the film, there really isn’t any other choice.
A Ghost Story just says too much, often with no more than a canny piece of editing or a perfect bit of body language, to ever call it pretentious. It is too rare to find a film this hauntingly atmospheric that also speaks with such eloquence. It captures so much of the soulful throb of being alive and knowing that nothing lasts forever. And it accomplishes all of this with great beauty and empathy, and all in a tight hour and a half. Still, this is the very kind of film that needs to be defended from accusations of pretentiousness. It is, after all, a quiet, reflective, relentlessly moody Sundance film that spends most of its running time watching a man wordlessly wander a single location donning a bedsheet with cartoonish eyeholes cut into it. And it does not present any of that jokingly. It has the audacity to ask, softly but sincerely, for your serious, hushed attention. And I understand how saying, “This is Casey Affleck in a bedsheet. Please take this all very seriously.”, might produce some peals of laughter. And the thing is that is all totally fine. Because one can laugh at the dizzy extremes that serious, heartfelt Art sometimes goes to, and still learn something from it. Art can be absurd, ludicrous, overreaching, silly, and even self-serious, and be no less vital for all of that. It can often better push boundaries, present new ideas, and provoke beautiful thoughts because of its very willingness to look preposterous. In the end, a word like “absurd” leaves room to feel gobsmacked by the wild wooliness of a film and still leave ourselves open to its message. And in the end, it is okay to cry foul when a film undoes itself through its own idiosyncrasies. It is okay to criticize films that put so much effort into looking and sounding like grand, meaningful statements that they forget to actually be meaningful. But dismissing a film outright just for daring to be off-kilter or bombastic or self-serious? That is, in a word, pretentious.