Synopsis – In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.
My Take – Let me get this out the way first, even though the intriguing title is suggestive of a standard horror story, it’s not! Instead it is a low-budget supernatural drama about life and death. I know, an art house film may not always be your go-to place for a good time out with a bunch of friends, particularly amidst big popcorn flicks, plus it will be quite hard to explain the silent brilliance of David Lowery‘s film to a casual filmgoer seems, mainly as the film works with almost zero dialogue and an abundance of unbroken shots, but let me say, it often draws paths to the answers of whatever life questions you may regularly ponder. Sure, the film falls into the category of love it or hate it, you should know that the film is presented by A24, who have started to make a name for itself on the low budget, indie film scene, distributing such great and ambitious films as; The Lobster, Room, The Witch, Ex Machina, Swiss Army Man, Enemy and of course 2016’s Moonlight, which nabbed Best Picture at the Oscars. Above all, in perhaps one of the most admirable filmmaking choices of the 21st century, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) chose to create this $100,000 budget, 92 minute film, just two days after he finished work on the 2016’s $70 million dollar Disney picture Pete’s Dragon, a successful yet underwhelming film. His 2017 effort is both thematically overwhelming, shrouded in grief and sorrow, both purely personal and comprehensively existential & its best you approach the film knowing as little as possible, as its simplistic approach to cinematography and composition creates and environment that is equally evocative and thought provoking. Indeed the film is very slow paced and I can understand why I a member of general audience would hate it. Personally, I found it to be extremely fascinating, mainly as life is not a highlights reel, and this film achieves to show its enormity through legacy, love and loss, at the same time being philosophical, psychological and extremely poetic. Yes, this is a wonderfully strange film.
The story follows C (Casey Affleck), who moves into a house with his wife, M (Rooney Mara) and plan to start a life together in it until tragedy strikes. Right outside their house, C is killed in an automobile accident, yet unable to leave her behind; C comes back to their house & maintains some level of existence as a ghost covered in a white sheet with two holes. Throughout the years of being trapped to haunt their home, and desperate to maintain a connection with her, he spends his time trying to obtain a personally meaningful piece of her that she left behind in the house they shared together, as he attempts to recover the last piece of his love he has access to, and sees the world change as he is catapulted through the years. As I mentioned above, this is a deep cut, art house indie that features very little dialogue, almost no plot, and numerous extended fixed shots with no payoff for your anticipation. Oh, and it’s shot in the old fashioned almost square aspect ratio. There are no creepy clowns under the bed or in the storm drains, and there is an absence of cheap jump-scares. This is more abstract experimental filmmaking than traditional horror, so choose your viewing partner accordingly. The plot is pretty straightforward but it addresses themes of human existence and eternity in a way that many big-budget films don’t even try. For such an absurd premise, the whole film admittedly grows within you the more you think about it. The 1:33:1 ratio of the film gives the sense of how trapped the main character is & photographs the personal shell that C is stuck in. Though here it’s unbroken, making him unable to move on from both what he possesses most and what he’s subjected to do after death. The hard cuts, scene transitions, and long takes distort our sense of time and space much like in the headspace of Casey Affleck. Sometimes moments fly by within years, sometimes it takes one long minute. The goofy-looking ghost sheet aspires to director Lowery‘s usual childlike innocence from his other films to evoke a sort of ironic melancholy to the story. The film itself is a very digestible 90 minutes which is of a perfect length for this film because it doesn’t go overboard and forget what it is. It’s a horror film that is light on scares but heavy on thoughts and brains. The big scare is putting yourself in the shoes of the ghost. What would you do if you had to witness your loved one go through grief and you couldn’t do anything about it? You couldn’t comfort them. You couldn’t hold them. You could just watch. What if the person you loved moved on from you? What if they forget you? These questions are what made this film scary for me. The level of helplessness that the film portrays is horrifying enough to remind audiences that death is still scary. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, the film isn’t worried about your beliefs. It plays out like a fantasy and that’s how it stays which really bodes well for it. It never reaches beyond what is happening with the Man and the Woman and, of course, the House (which becomes a character itself). Director David Lowry does a great job at setting up a “what if” scenario that all you can do is ask yourself, “what would I do in this situation?” The scariest part of that is there is literally nothing you can do.
That rationalization is probably scarier than most horror films out today. This film explores a lot! If it’s not making you think about how your own life is incredibly valuable, it’s making you come to terms with your overall insignificance in the almost limitless universe, and it makes you sad, depressed, yet oddly fueled with burning passion to make your mark count and leave your legacy in time. As Director David Lowrey perfectly communicates, your legacy, as it were, will continue with your loved ones; family and friends are the center of our own personal universes. This film is about time and how it waits for no one, even when we die time keeps on going, and Lowery has excellently used editing to illustrate this and play with time. He has said that he believes it is time, and the editing of time, that makes film stand out as an art form. Lowery‘s editing is seamless and complex as he manipulates time in a varying number of ways throughout the film. My personal favorite instance of Lowery‘s time manipulation is C’s song scene, Lowery intercuts between a warmly lit flashback and a dull and cold looking present as C’s song plays in both shots. Plus the added proxemics between M and the Ghost makes for a deeply emotional scene that hit me hard. Another way in which the director, David Lowery is experimental, is with his use of shot duration. Lowery, having come from an editing background in film, as well as, being inspired by the use of long shot duration’s in European and Asian cinema, has taken the long take to the extreme. The film’s simplicity is one of its strongest assets as well. Even a simple scene of M eating pie for several minutes turns out to be an emotional powerhouse that is incredibly effective at creating a sense of empathy in the audience. A unique score also creates feelings of both sorrow and, occasionally, tension among the audience as well. It ends up contributing to the meditative feeling of the film, which may remind viewers of some of Terrence Malick‘s earlier films. Most of the film is silent. The conversation between M and C is sparse and enigmatic, but it suggests trouble in their relationship. The family who takes over the house after M leaves is Spanish-speaking and the only real speech in the film occurs with the next inhabitants, who throw a party which is dominated by a pedantic nihilist (Will Oldham) who holds forth about the meaning of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or any art, given that the Sun will eventually become a red giant. It’s a monologue that the ghost of C listens to, and when it ends, the lights flicker, which is one of the ways C, makes him known. But it amounts to nothing. The next scene, the house is empty again, except for C’s ghost. The ghost’s simplistic form might seem odd or laughable at first. This was not the case with me. I found the ghost’s emergence and entry into the film to be seamless and thoroughly convincing. The narrative initially dissects local aspects of the plot, such as what type of relationship the man had with his wife and who he seemed to be as a person. Then it proceeds to become something much more ambitious- waxing philosophical on how we spend our time on Earth and what meaning, if any, we should hope to derive from it. The music score is sorrowful, soulful and haunting, giving a real sense of eeriness and also nuance. Despite having a stellar duo in Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, acting makes a limited contribution to what this film achieves. The silent Affleck is mostly under the sheet and Mara is brilliant for the time we see her. The weak link of the film is the script as it’s wisely kept at minimum, and when it is used while parts are thought-provoking the more philosophical pieces of dialogue come over as a little self-indulgent. On the whole, ‘A Ghost Story’ is a complex, ambitious art-house drama that is weirdly amusing.
Directed – David Lowery
Rated – R
Run Time – 92 minutes