Ghosts have always gotten a bit of an unfair rep, but in ‘A Ghost Story’ writer and director David Lowery looks to change all of that. The movie is a singular exploration of legacy, loss, and the essential human longing for meaning and connection. Recently deceased, a white-sheeted ghost named M (Casey Affleck) returns to his suburban home to console his bereft wife named C (Rooney Mara), only to find that in his spectral state he has become unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away. Increasingly unmoored, the ghost embarks on a cosmic journey through memory and history, confronting life’s ineffable questions and the enormity of existence. An unforgettable meditation on love and grief, A GHOST STORY emerges ecstatic and surreal, a wholly unique experience that lingers long after the credits roll. ‘A Ghost Story’ is rated R for brief adult language and a disturbing image.
How entertaining can a movie about the observation of human grief after a death really be? David Lowery answers that question in the most poignantly splendid of directions for his newest project. Ghosts in film have always been portrayed in the scary sense, most notably with jump scare horror flicks that have run into the territory of repetition on more than a few occasions. ‘A Ghost Story’ is a breath of fresh air in that depiction because it fills in the gaps with the urban legends and hypothesis that we have passed down from each and every generation, showing us the vast array of emotional release that comes from such a life altering event and the toll that it takes mentally and physically to move on. From Lowery’s point of view as a writer, death is anger, death is strange, death is lonely, and most importantly, death is eternal. It’s a never-ending cycle that halts the lives of those involved, and all of that is captured so chillingly disturbing in this melodrama that doesn’t need to be constricted by a particular genre in challenging the audience’s perception of ghosts up to this point. If you’re seeing this film to be scared, you’re in for a major disappointment. I myself came for a good movie and got something so much better. ‘A Ghost Story’ isn’t just must-see, it’s must-appreciate for the many things that establishes Lowery as a showman in so many aspects for crafting the most technically sound film that I have seen in 2017.
The film is shot from an original style, running on 4:3, which is incredibly rare in motion pictures these days, but feels welcoming in this particular film. This, as well as many other softly subtle touches really generated an impactful cinematography and presence from Lowery that goes a long way in producing something that is every bit as original creatively as it is ambitiously mundane in design. That may sound like an insult, but David hits on a certain aura and atmosphere with this film that very few other movies about the afterlife capitalize upon. The camera angles add a certain degree of an experimental side, refusing to settle for a consistent style that eventually grows conventional. Some of my favorites were the soft side-to-side shots that would capture everything along the way to meeting its intended destination for that shot. I also love that there is so little of camera panning in and out of our characters in each sequence. In this decision, it feels like we too are a spirit living on in this world and watching these people play out before our very eyes without a one of them knowing of our presence. It all adds up to this home movie style of memories that play before our very eyes under a gloomy cloud of mourning that eats up the air in every scene.
One aspect that might alienate some people watching this film are the long takes that sometimes feel like they run on a bit too long to contribute to the entertainment factor of each scene. To this I greatly disagree. The scenes do intentionally drag on sometimes, but if you missed the intention in them to soak up as much about the sights and sounds that come with emotional grieving, then you will fail when it comes to intepreting the important perspectives that Lowery so vividly channels in this film. I am from the David Lynch school of fandom, so long takes do little to drive me out of a movie. But I understand that this single aspect most notably during the first act of the film might be the thing that takes people out of it, and to that I would emphatically ask that you stick through it because this film will catch up to you and steal your heart by teaching you what a nerve shattering tool that the inevitability of progression will take you upon. Those long takes force us to pay attention when it matters the most, and I honestly don’t know of any other way to embrace that feeling to the lingering degree that Lowery beautifully depicts with these investments.
On the subject of story, this one isn’t just about the hooded character that is alluded to in the film’s title, but also about the living that are on their own grain (like the ghost) of being left behind. There’s a scene later on in the film where a bunch of drunk partygoers discuss some of life’s greatest philosophical questions, and it’s at that moment where the film’s narrative really sneaks up on you. This is a movie that hints on how little we really matter in the grand scheme of things, and how a hundred years from now your greatest accomplishments will fly like dust in the wind for the next person parking in your spot. Without spoiling anything, the film explores three different arcs within this house, but my personal favorite was between Mara and Affleck’s ghost that hinges on the dramatic pull of finally letting go. Honestly, I could’ve done with just this perspective angle in the story, but the additional characters as the film goes on does kind of freshen up the poignancy of perspective, as well as the ever-changing backdrop that hit hard in the nostalgia buff like me who still visits the abandoned places from his childhood. The ending was left a little ambiguous, and is probably the only slight negative that I have for the movie, but I am down for future watches that help me connect to what Lowery was teaching in the closing moments of this film. There’s too much lightning in the bottle before it for me to fault it too much, but I would’ve preferred more emphasis on the closure of the film.
The thing that is cool about the performances is that it’s mostly expression, instead of the long-winded diatribes of speech that contribute to noteworthy turns. There are long times in between scenes without any dialogue in the film, instead choosing to add more to the overbearing layer of grief that has filled the air in the house. However, Rooney Mara gives one of her best performances to date by channeling the fragility that this devastating turn has left her in. So much of that long take decision that I mentioned earlier deals with her character, where we see the tears slowly start to fall without it actually look like she is crumbling underneath it all. Something as simple as eating a pie becomes a chore when your mind is turned off under the suffocating circumstances of losing the single greatest entity in your life. Casey Affleck is also remarkable, despite being under a sheet for a majority of the movie. Listen, I don’t know if Affleck is actually the actor underneath the sheet, but I am going to credit him as it’s his character in the plot. It’s not a typically easy thing to emote underneath a bedsheet, but Affleck startles us, raising the hair on our arms by a slow-moving turn that really brings to the surface the tragedy of it all. Death is only the beginning with this ghost. His misery begins after it all, and those reactions for a faceless presence are given just enough emphasis to make us feel what he is feeling.
THE VERDICT – David Lowery moves the chess pieces articulately on one of the most astoundingly forlorn films that I have seen in quite some time. ‘A Ghost Story’ appropriately manages such heavy-handed themes through an inventive, artful and unnerving stroke of the canvas, exploring the volume of intensity with love and loss. Mara and Affleck are hypnotic, channeling a spiritual connection that really makes you connect with their dire situation. This is one movie that must be seen, and like any ghost, will haunt you for the rest of your life spiritually.