M (Rooney Mara) sits in the corner of a room digging away at a pie. She viciously attacks the dish holding the pie, scraping the glass with her fork and feverishly tearing through every bite. The shot never changes. We watch her eat the entire pie. She has no clue that we’re watching or that anyone is watching. Standing about 10 feet behind her and framed to the right is a ghost under a white sheet. The spectral presence isn’t unfamiliar to us. We know it’s her late husband, C (Casey Affleck), watching her.
The talk of this 5 minute scene preceded most of the serious critical discussion of A Ghost Story (2017) back when it first premiered at Sundance in January. This scene had taken on a life of its own as the response was mainly, “I can’t believe David Lowery did that,” or “I don’t know how Rooney Mara did that.” Because of the talk of this scene throughout the early spring, I had tried many times to picture what such a scene might look like. A close-up on Mara’s face as she shovels pie piece by piece into her mouth was the most common way it played out in my head. Good thing I’m not David Lowery.
I assumed that a scene such as this could merely be a stunt, an exercise in patience, and that by indulging this idea, Lowery could compromise his film with a gratuitous stunt. However, Lowery is the same director who imbued unbelievable emotion into a live-action remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon just last year.
Even with the trepidation with which I approached this scene, I couldn’t have been prepared for what Lowery had made. A Ghost Story is a beautiful, haunting, and ambitious epic in which a husband dies and then watches from under a white sheet as his wife mourns his loss. It is a film steeped in memory and faded at the edges as time creeps slowly into the frame and tears away at the image. But let’s talk about the pie scene.
It is within the pie scene that Lowery instills the thesis of his film. The camera, positioned fairly far away with M eating on the left and the ghost farther back on the right, sits still for the duration of the 5 minute scene. It would have been easier for Lowery to claw back at the audience’s attention with fancy camera movement and more obviously interesting framing. Instead he patiently waits and lets his framing and actors do the heavy-lifting. My mind started to wander several times during this scene (others have discussed falling asleep at times during this scene). Each time my mind would wander I would get upset at myself for not being able to sit patiently and observe what was happening. I was all over the place. It was how my mind thinks when I can’t sleep late at night or often, lately, when I’m trying to read. I fought it and tried to refocus my attention constantly until I just gave up.
But that’s the point.
Lowery isn’t trying to force focus on M. He isn’t demanding your attention. He’s actually doing the opposite. He’s giving you permission to let your mind wander. Zone out for a second and think about your shopping list, or the book you haven’t finished, or the movie you watched in theaters yesterday, or fight the urge to instinctively reach for your phone. Some might label this pretentious or a cinema of boredom, but there is something much more foundational at play. Grief and time are at the heart of this movie and as we often know both from art and from life experience, grief and time are inseparable. We must go through the long time-consuming process of grief to ever be able to move on and even though we may never truly heal.
Every time I would wrangle my focus to engage with what was onscreen I would realize the same thing: M is still there, she is still eating the pie, and she is still grieving. My distanced focus had no bearing on whether or not she would heal faster. She still digs her fork time after time into the pie and consumes distraught portions. Her husband is still dead, and she is still lost for the time being. With this in mind, the pie scene became the definitive scene of A Ghost Story, not because of its bizarre quality but because of the overwhelming emotion felt each time she takes a bite of the pie and continues to grieve her lost husband.
Movies coming out of Sundance every year often carry with them unbearable weight. Critics and audiences championing exhaustively to be on the front end of the next great film. Sometimes it works and we end up seeing pure magic get a wide release later in the year like 2014’s Whiplash. Other times, by the time the movie releases wide, it has become controversial (and is widely considered to be… not a good film) like Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation (2016), which exemplified what happens when hype is so bloated that the movie just cannot live up to its reputation (see also: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl (2015)). Occasionally though, you catch a movie that had an intense reputation like A Ghost Story. Somehow bleary-eyed exhausted critics and audiences were able to watch Lowery’s quiet, slow meditation on grief and understand that there was much more on screen.
I’ve often heard that being bored can be part of the experience of watching a movie. Here in A Ghost Story, it isn’t boredom–I was captivated by each frame–it is simply the audacity of a confident creator to let their movie be the slow, meandering epic on time and grief that they want it to be. Somewhere within that vision, however, Lowery allows for the audience to get lost in thought and let that be a part of the experience. It wasn’t the pie eating scene in particular that brought out my emotion, it was that I could live years in my head while M sat onscreen eating that pie, mourning the loss of her husband. As I moved on to other thoughts, she could not move her mind to anything other than her husband.
Featured Image: A24