Directed By: David Lowery
Written By: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
The first pleasure of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is its singularity. To use a cliché, this is a film which defies description. It’s certainly not a horror, despite the very occasional jump scare and whatever macabre thoughts the title might conjure. It’s not a comedy, nor a romance, nor a drama, at least it’s none of these things in the ways that we have come to expect them. The best way I can think to whittle A Ghost Story down to a succinct snapshot of tone and style is to suggest it’s a cross between something from the mind of Tim Burton, with its quirky, gothic sensibility, and something from the mind of Jim Jarmusch, with its odd enchantment and unexpectedly warm embrace.
I’m reluctant to reveal much about the story, not for fear of spoilers, but because it’s difficult to make revelations about a film which is so undriven by events. There are certainly key moments, but Lowery’s latest is more of a solemn, pottering mood poem than a traditional narrative, a meditation on themes that are institutional in film— love, grief, loneliness. That thematic terrain is undoubtedly well travelled, but what truly defines A Ghost Story is the unique cinematic language devised by Lowery through which he explores these notions.
What can be revealed about the story is that very early there is a death, that of Casey Affleck’s musician known to us only by his initial, C. Lowery awakens from the painfully intimate scene prior to the sight of C’s head laying limp on the steering wheel of his car. Next, we are in the morgue, where C’s wife/partner (it’s never clarified), known as M (Rooney Mara), looks over the sheet covered corpse of her now former lover. She seems to stare rather blankly for a time, before leaving. Lowery’s camera however does not leave. Long after M has left the frame, Lowery continues to hold firm in his position, filming the slab on which C’s body lays for an interminable time more. It’s a take that’s beyond elongated, an unbroken shot that’s content to observe nothing for minutes on end, until C’s body suddenly rises into a seated position. From this point forth C is a ghost, a ghost that’s playful in his appearance, donning a low-budget fixture of many a Halloween, a bed sheet with eyeholes cut out. In this state, the now deceased meanders back home, a site which will become the prison of his post-life. C is invisible in death, however he can have minor bearing on the material world, moving items, causing lightbulbs to flicker and even explode when his emotions boil over. Mostly however, C just waits and lovingly haunts M. He watches her bring home a date. He watches her move out. He watches as a new family moves in, and some prognosticating squatters after that. He eventually waits centuries.
There’s a lot of waiting in A Ghost Story, which on one hand is the defining characteristic of Lowery’s oddly evocative language, and on the other will undoubtedly be the source of many restless moviegoing experiences. It’s quickly become a Lowery watermark, evidenced equally in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, to hang on the small and seemingly uneventful, to tease lethargy in order to fully champion mood. Lowery requires his viewer take a leap of faith, to indulge him.
There are other protracted scenes, scenes which border on surrealism in the sheer economic manner of their unravelling. That aforementioned scene of intimacy sees C and M merely lay in each other’s arms in bed, no words spoken, no real movements made. Lowery just watches them be, which in time adds texture to their romance—so often love is best communicated in between words, it’s intuitive, a deep-seated comfort which eludes articulation. Later, following C’s death, Lowery will merely place his camera on the floor, and in a single, near ten minute, uninterrupted take, observe M as she eats as much of a family pie as she can until she has to puke.
It’s in this willingness to merely drop the camera and let it record, that Lowery further aligns himself with Jarmusch. Think of Down By Law or the recent Paterson, movies which are so sparse in their technique, which in a sense are so uncinematic, that they in turn become cinematic. Lowery’s minimalism heralds a certain rawness, a sort of visual purity and candidness through its defiantly unbroken composition. No mere stylistic stunt, Lowery’s economy also has the effect of reflecting that which the film seeks to capture thematically. The director seems to shackle us to certain frames, to lure the eye in before confining it to a single shot, mimicking the imprisonment of grief, of loneliness.
If the first chief pleasure of A Ghost Story is the singular language its director has devised, the second is the realisation of this language’s quiet power. Lowery has found a uniquely visceral avenue into his themes, one that is purely show with no tell, and one, in turn, that’s rich in emotion. Lowery’s elegy is steeped in intimacy and heartache, his soft colour pallet, driven by faded golds and pale browns, reminiscent of the Mallick magic hour aesthetic that was so central to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, lending the film a heightened wistfulness. The distinct use of the box-like aspect ratio of 1.33:1 calls to mind home movie footage or a polaroid photograph, personalising the images—looking at them, it’s as if we are flicking through an album of faint memories.
The two central performances in a sense serve as allegories for the film entire, two blank-faced, unflinching documents on love and love lost. Rooney Mara, as is so often the case, greets us with a stoic surface and lets her emotions shift from within almost imperceptibly. Not to be outdone, Casey Affleck isn’t merely stoic, but predominantly faceless, veiled for a vast majority of his screen time. Instead the Oscar winner must communicate via his weary movements and posture—somehow we always seem to know what the ghost is thinking. The placidity of the performances matches that of Lowery’s camera; so too does the ample pathos improbably rung from this stillness.
It all adds to a final piece that is firstly arresting, then deeply touching, and ultimately one of the year’s best new releases. Where Lowery has previously shown glimpses of his indelible voice without properly focussing it (Saints seemed to messily compress two different movies into one, whilst last year’s big studio venture Pete’s Dragon was too coy and safe to be the director’s required vehicle), A Ghost Story, for all of its seeming languidness, is refined, ambitious, enigmatic, and unabashedly itself. It takes nerve for a film to demand so much patience of a viewer. It takes something else altogether to make that patience worthwhile.