By Mitch Anderson
A Ghost Story is a film where talking about “what” happens in it is not nearly as important as talking about “how” things happen in it. Indeed, the “what” that happens could fit into a few sentences: a married couple, known only to us as C and M (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, respectively), experience disagreement and tension over C’s reluctance to leave their house behind as they prepare to move. When C is killed in a car accident on the street outside the house, he returns as a spirit to inhabit the house from beyond, watching M’s grieving, acceptance, and eventual move, before being a silent witness to the succession of the house’s occupants after her departure.
Again, the film’s “plot”, as it were, is relatively easy to describe. However, the film’s immense beauty and profundity rests in writer/director/editor David Lowery’s framing of the story (this is meant only partially as a pun; the entire film is framed by a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, “boxing” the image and making the frame look almost like an old photograph). Lowery, who has always been an open book in regards to his influences and who has directly stated that the tone and feel of A Ghost Story is an homage to the “slow” cinema of international directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pedro Costas, asserts his command over the viewer early on, and prepares us for the film’s progression into increasingly ambitious territory (even though the plot description given above lays out the basics of the story, it is very much worth entering this film knowing as little about its latter story as possible. Rest assured, any plot points of this kind will only be vaguely discussed in this review). It’s not that he doesn’t give us room to breathe; in fact, we have almost too much room to breathe.
Even before C’s death and return, Affleck and Mara are framed in beautiful, mostly silent tableaus. An early shot of the two lying in bed and holding each other lasts past the point of comfort, instinctually making you wonder what is going to happen to resolve the moment. But nothing does; eventually, you begin to study every detail about the shot; the bends of Affleck and Mara’s arms, the nuances of their faces, present even in sleep. The way they lie in bed, Mara’s body bent slightly towards Affleck’s. That’s to say nothing of the already infamous “pie scene”, in which we watch Mara’s M, in the midst of silent, almost passive grief, sit on the floor of her kitchen and, in a single, unbroken shot, eat almost an entire pie given to her as a condolence, as the phantom C watches on in the background. This five-minute shot is A Ghost Story in a nutshell; pondering without crossing the threshold into punishing, emotionally complex, and slyly underlined by humor.
Regarding this last point, it is to the film’s credit that one can discuss it at such length before even touching on its core visual gambit; C’s ghost is represented by his body being covered by a hospital bedsheet with eyeholes, not unlike the costumes worn by the children in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. However, it is a credit to Lowery’s mastery of tone that if you remain hung up on this detail, A Ghost Story is likely not for you. Additionally, credit must be given to Casey Affleck’s performance as the ghost (and supposedly he was underneath the sheet the entire time during filming), a pantomime built entirely through careful movement and restrained body language, blending into the space of the house and standing out from his surroundings with equal skill. It is simply remarkable that a “face” consisting only of a pair of eye holes can clearly express so many emotions with no dialogue. And I would be remiss to not mention Daniel Hart’s string score, a cacophonous, at times unsettling, at most times unbearably gorgeous piece, to say nothing of “I Get Overwhelmed”, a song by Hart’s band Dark Rooms that is repurposed here as a composition by Affleck’s character that takes on cosmic significance as the film progresses.
Ultimately, A Ghost Story’s true star is Lowery himself. A brazenly experimental tone poem meditating on themes of loss, legacy, and the physical manifestations of emotion, the film represents a major leap forward for a filmmaker already blazing a distinct, impressive trail after only three feature films (it isn’t necessary to know going in that literally days after wrapping post-production on his big-budget, fantastic Pete’s Dragon for Disney, Lowery and a skeleton crew traveled to Texas to film A Ghost Story, but it helps). In a style already hugely informed by storytelling and its influence, A Ghost Story symbolizes a filmmaker more than ready to leave his stamp on the modern cinema scene. Patient, ambitious, and deeply moving, A Ghost Story is easily one of the best films of 2017.
A Ghost Story is screening at the UICA Movie Theater September 1st – 19th.