Review: A Ghost Story

Director: David Lowry

Stars: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham

There are five minutes in David Lowry’s A Ghost Story in which you watch Rooney Mara sit on the floor eating a pie, crying. That’s all that you’re watching. It’s just Rooney Mara sitting on the floor, eating a pie and crying. For about five minutes. If you feel you can stomach that then you may just have the right constitution for the film at large. Which is not to say that it is ponderous throughout, but it is a thoughtful piece, a deliberately paced one and, fittingly, one just as interested in negative spaces as moments of perceived ‘action’.

Mara and Affleck play a couple living in a modest house. The film is tethered to the location, only very rarely venturing away from the plot of land. He is a musician. Her day-to-day equally as amorphous. They are a typical couple. Occasionally they don’t get on. An extended sequence early on sees them in an affectionate embrace in bed. It’s an incredibly intimate shot that finds us suspended above them. It actually feels like we’re intruding. Lowry establishes their intrinsic attachment to one another. Then one day Affleck’s character (neither are named in the film but the credits assign them letters of the alphabet) is killed outside the house in a car accident.

Mara identifies him at the morgue and leaves. The camera holds – again enjoying a pause in action – and then Affleck rises from the mortuary slab, taking his death robe with him. Next time we seem him he has two black eye holes cut in the sheet. We can’t see his eyes. He wanders the hospital corridors and sees ‘the light’ but doesn’t pass through it. He is still tied to the world, still tied to Mara. He goes home and he watches her.

Affleck is able to affect objects but he most often chooses not to, standing witness to Mara. She can’t see or sense him, but through his act of watching we understand his devotion. Despite whatever pettiness may come between them, this ghost story is also a love story. Lowry achieves this without affording his lead actor the ability to speak or emote. We can’t read his face and are only allowed clouded body language. Yet the message comes across.

The aforementioned pie eating scene shows grief on the screen and to a great degree – unsurprisingly – A Ghost Story is a tale of grieving. The ghost of Affleck watches Mara get on with her life, or not.  But by using the fantastical conceit of being a ghost, Lowry imagines approaching grief from the other side; from the perspective of the person who’s been lost, where time is a flexible and distorting thing that the soul is somewhat free from, even if it doesn’t realise it. Scenes change arbitrarily from Affleck’s point of view; he can go from day to night, from week to month, from month to year, but for him it seems like an instant. In that way we journey with him and the journey is cyclical.

Lowry shoots all of this with minimal dialogue and in the old boxy ‘Academy’ ratio, smoothing off the corners so that the frame brings to mind slides in an old projector. In keeping with this sensibility he rarely moves the camera and if he does so it is with deliberate purpose. With so much riding on framing therefore, its easy to call A Ghost Story immaculate. Cinematographer Andrew Doz Palermo should find himself in the running for a number of awards for his efforts here. He helps Lowry’s film become the vision that it is.

And Lowry taps into something universal here. The pacing and the minimalism will see the film cast as art-house or cult, yet Lowry paints in broad enough strokes to encourage appreciation on a mass scale. The score from Daniel Hart, when it is used, explodes in rapturous emotion, often helping guide us to the places Affleck’s ghost cannot. In that way the film manages to mingle sensibilities and play like something for both the head and the heart. The visual equivalent of a Sigur Rós song.

In the middle of the picture we receive the wordiest segment as Will Oldham appears in a party scene as the verbose Prognosticator, expounding the themes which A Ghost Story already has running. His impassioned speech tells of mankind’s purpose being to be remembered. That a life’s work is an effort to pass something on; to not be forgotten. He speaks in terms of art; of books or music, exploring a fantastic theoretical future and scientific prediction to a zero sum in which all matter hurtles into oblivion. But he dismisses one thing that Lowry’s film otherwise obsesses over; love.

Communication is another preoccupation here. Affleck testily scares a family when he becomes enraged, and the film briefly nods affectionately to the likes of Poltergeist, but this is largely an exception to the rule. His appearance throughout as a ‘boo’ ghost initially reads as slightly comical; an attention-seeking ploy or gimmick for the movie. But the sheet serves another purpose; it physically embodies the barrier between Affleck and Mara. It is the membrane of reality between them. The buffer. Affleck is a shadow in a room. He is No Face from Spirited Away; a sad ghost, victimised by his inability to communicate.

Apply a logical mind to the film and it falls apart like a bulldozer pushing a house down, but that isn’t the point of A Ghost Story. In danger of sounding highfalutin about it or pretentious, this is less a traditional narrative film (though it has one, and a surprisingly affecting one) and more of a poem. There’s a steady cadence to the flow of imagery, to where music is used or not. Lowry guides us the whole way, but that is his role here. Mara, as ever, is hypnotic whenever on screen.

This is a film that’s likely easy to knock for its defiantly arch behaviour and some will write it off for being anything from twee to depressing, but to disregard it on such terms is to deny yourself one of the year’s most exquisite journeys, one that shrugs at convention while asking for an embrace. And despite how chilly it may look or sound, there is a lot to embrace here. As timeless as it is, it suddenly seems as though none of us have enough.

Score:  4.5

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