Written & Directed by David Lowery
The last time we saw a collaboration between director David Lowery and actors Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I left the theater wanting so much more. Lowery has a unique vision and with that film showed tremendous potential, but what seemed to result was an excruciatingly beautiful film which left me rather vacant upon exiting the theater. Lowery’s style and vision appeared at the forefront with the development of characters and stories taking a backseat, which resulted in an uneven but very promising mainstream debut. Lowery’s follow-up, Pete’s Dragon, however, was an impressive piece of filmmaking which seemed to remedy the transgressions found in his previous film while keeping the Disney tale at heart. So with A Ghost Story, a rather strange looking film, was Lowery able to continue that upward trajectory and promise?
In short, yes. In detail…well, it’s a long story. So I did mention that this film was strange, and I wasn’t exaggerating. The core of the story may be straight forward enough, but the rest is decidedly odd. A young couple (Mara, Affleck) live in a small home in rural America. They have their standard ups and downs, but love each other dearly. But when Affleck’s character suddenly passes away as a result of an auto accident, Mara must deal with the grief of his passing, living in the same home with the same memories haunting her. Meanwhile, Affleck has returned to the home as a ghost, with a sheet over him. Unseen by everyone, he watches over Mara in an attempt to console her and help her grieve.
There are a few elements here that are immediately striking, and deliberate directorial choices made by David Lowery which have made me wrestle with them ever since seeing them, and ever since exiting the theater after my screening. The first is the obvious: Casey Affleck in a sheet. While this gimmick, made famous by third graders at trick or treat, may seem childish in the face of such a serious topic as grief, it’s never played for humor, and never seems “off” like the concept may on the surface. Lowery and Affleck, who really was under that sheet, pull it off wonderfully. Another aspect which was frustrating and enthralling all at the same time was the editing, the pace of the film.
A Ghost Story is marked by multiple long takes where the camera creeps and hovers for long periods of time, seemingly adding little to the narrative in the extra few extra seconds or in some cases minutes. But in a film about a ghost hovering and lurking, the style seems to fit, even if two thirds of the film are excruciatingly boring as a result. It’s an unfortunate circumstance while experiencing the film, but add many layers to the contemplation of it thereafter. A lot of this is due to the fact that the other third of the film is astoundingly beautiful, poetic, powerful and brilliant in every way. Lowery’s style will not be for everyone, and only the tentative, curious viewer will likely be rewarded by the depths of this sparse story.
Another element which adds to the charm and curiosity of the film is its aspect ratio. Yea, yea, yea, when a review goes into talk about aspect ratio, you know the film is very indie and potentially very snobby, but it’s also hard not to notice the distinct 1.33:1 aspect ratio. When the standard is 2.35:1, the difference is very apparent, but it once again raises the question: why? Why did David Lowery choose to shoot his film in such an aspect ration. Noted indie director Kelly Reichardt shot her film Meek’s Cutoff in such a ratio to mimic the sight from the bonnets of its main characters. I’m not sure the utility of such a choice, but it does make it more interesting to look at.
It’s not a scary film, nor is it an exciting one. A Ghost Story instead chooses to focus on the emotions of loss and grief and the tremendous process of overcoming both to honor the lost loved one as well as to move on to enjoying life in their void. Lowery has crafted an equally frustrating, poignant and completely moving film experience, one which I am sure will reward rewatches to find hidden details such as the subtle expressions from Rooney Mara which she masterfully uses to emote, or the subtle motions of the ghost in the sheet from Casey Affleck. A Ghost Story is a love/hate experience, much like life itself. But more often than not when remembering loved ones, we are left more with the love than we are the hate.