David Lowery's polarizing A Ghost Story hit cinemas a few months ago, and while its sprawling look at space and time as seen through the eyes of a mute, deceased, white-sheet wearing Casey Affleck had plenty of striking moments, it’s easy to see why so many viewers wrote the movie off as a meandering, pessimistic view of twenty-first century living.

Because in many ways – and in spite of its intentionally obtuse and ambiguous storytelling devices – Lowery's film straight-up concedes to supporting this worldview in an extended monologue; which incidentally is also the single worst scene in the movie. After 45 minutes of stunningly ambiguous glimpses into Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara's on-screen relationship, the film shifts gears and dedicates almost ten minutes (of which you can see the first minute or so of here) to a character we've never met, who smugly surmises the thesis the film had previously been intent on obfuscating.

The scene in question rears its ugly head after a jarring shift in time, set during a house party that Affleck's unseen spirit is haunting. There's a lot that's said (and a lot of words wasted) in the sequence, and, honestly, alarm bells should have started ringing when a sweaty Will Oldham sat down at a table and began to mansplain to (or rather, mansplain at) the women in his company that life is fruitless, nobody will remember you and your kids are going to die one day.

The ten-minute sequence itself deserves its own in-depth article to explain why it's so skin-crawlingly horrible, but here are the cliff-notes: you have this guy -- this guy who the film so desperately wants you to think is cool and above it all – smugly lecturing these women and the audience on how nothing in the world really matters, like he's just discovered the dictionary definition of ‘nihilism’. This is the kind of guy who you meet in college and smokes Marlboro cigarettes and listens to Neutral Milk Hotel, desperately insisting over and over again that he doesn't need your validation because one day the world will swallow itself up. It's an angsty stage most people grow out of, but it's the same pessimistic view of the world that A Ghost Story celebrates in the most tone-deaf way possible.

This stretch of the movie would be cringe-inducing in a vacuum, but because it's essentially the centrepiece of the whole film, it manages to leave a lingering stink over everything that follows and retroactively sours everything that came before. Which is a shame, because a few of the sequences that do precede the turning point where A Ghost Story begins to show its cards are home to some of the most heart-wrenching depictions of grief in recent memory. In fact the first half of the film, as Mara's character comes to terms with Affleck's death - who in turn is unable to do anything but watch as she grieves, comes to terms with his loss and, eventually, moves on - is genuinely haunting.

The infamous pie scene in particular has been ridiculed for being one of the more indulgent parts of the movie, but it should be commended for how it captures grief through an everyday human action that cinema rarely pays attention to: eating. In two different shots (one that lasts over five minutes), Mara slumps to the ground as she digs into a whole pie that a concerned friend left in her kitchen. It's uncomfortable to watch, not only because the piercing sounds of her fork hitting the plate provide the sole score for the entire scene, but because both the audience and Affleck's ghost are watching this character sink to her lowest and most undignified point of despair yet.

Mara's character stuffs her face more ravenously the longer the scene goes on, and while it might come across as daft or comic at face value to have almost ten minutes dedicated to a character eating some pastry, it certainly makes for a lasting image, or at least a feeling, that a lot of viewers could relate to. Watching this distraught character shovel this food down, concentrating so much on eating so completely and totally so she doesn't have to think about the crippling sorrow weighing her down, is painful.

A lot of us have probably been in that same situation; so sad and on the verge of breaking that you just eat and eat until your mouth's too full to scream or talk or cry or verbally acknowledge the bad things happening around you. Cinema has amassed its own visual shorthand for expressing emotional desolation like this, so seeing something as raw, uncomfortable and strange as this hit too close to home and was more effective than the regular, familiar shorthand could ever be.

Another scene, set to Dark Rooms' brilliantly ethereal track ‘I Get Overwhelmed’, is similarly effective. The song (contextualised in the narrative as being written and recorded by Affleck's character), plays over two juxtaposed scenes: one where the couple listens to it for the first time and one where Mara listens to the song again, alone and through a pair of low-quality headphones. This contrast of warm visual hues in the first scene against the cold palette of the second, along with the song booming when the two are together and being barely audible when Mara's character is alone, perfectly conveys that feeling of hearing music for the first time in a while and being instantly transported back to how you felt years earlier.

But for me it was evoking more than that. Because at the same time it seemed more like a deflating comment on how, while you can revel in the comfort of nostalgia through personal artifacts, you can't actually recapture the same feeling they originally evoked in the present, only remember how they made you feel in the past. Because in the present the song sounds tinny, weak, and doesn't hold the life or the meaning it once had. It's a poor facsimile of an instance that only existed for a fleeting moment, and any attempt to replicate that feeling, or even the connection to that feeling, inevitably results in diminishing returns the further away you get from it. But sometimes that's enough to get you by.

On their own, sequences like these could easily be regarded as some of the most spellbinding 2017 has had to offer so far. But these moments become difficult to enjoy on their own merits when you know the whole point of the film is to be this self-congratulatory, overbearing, existential look at life's finite nature. It's not that this theme goes against the point of these previous scenes -- it actually fits in pretty perfectly – but the problem lies more in the shift in the way this message is presented.

Before Will Oldham shows up everything is ambiguous and open to interpretation, and the sudden injection of a clear authorial voice halfway through somewhat poisons the deeply personal understanding of the material that you've been encouraged to project onto the film before this. After you hit Oldham's monologue these previous moments don't feel as earnest, and are less powerful because you know the film is patting itself on the back and telling itself how right it is.

A Ghost Story becomes a difficult movie to reconcile, then. The best moments from the first half of the film worked so well on a personal level because of the meanings you're encouraged to inject into them, without knowing explicitly the message they're trying to convey. However when the film did become more overt with what it had to say about the world, I realised I pretty much despised everything it stood for. And with such a contrast between what the movie actually wanted to be and what I thought it was, A Ghost Story became emblematic of the tug of war that happens under the surface of every film. That is, who gets to decide what a film means, anyway: the people who make it or the people who watch it?