I can think of few films that are as distant from their promotional photo, and indeed their title, as David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. We might anticipate a post-modern, self-aware horror; what we get is an original and emotionally profound depiction of love, loss and how humans move through time.
Lowery has described the film as a passion project that rose from an argument he had with his wife; it must have been a hard sell to financiers, so obstinately is it the film it wants to be. There is minimal dialogue, shots regularly run to several minutes (though the film itself is a snappy 92), & there is less a narrative, more a meandering float through all of human existence. Hitchcock said ‘what is drama but life with the dull bits cut out’. This film revels in ‘the dull bits’, portraying them as the moments when we are really able to stop and feel. Most notable amongst these is a 5-minute single take when Rooney Mara eats almost the entirety of a vegan chocolate pie. Mara’s revelation that this was the only time she has eaten pie has satisfied the clickbait sites; while the shot itself has divided audiences, for me it was a daring choice that paid off in full. Cinema does not just happen a few seconds at a time; it can take longer for the effect of something to sink in. It’s like life.
By the time of this sugar-free sit down, we have already seen the impossibly tragic event that renders Mara’s M (no names, only letters) so silent. Or rather we haven’t; we witness the immediate aftermath, as if that is how it will exist in human history & the minds of those who saw it. It is the kind of event that scars a life, from which there is no question of ‘recovering’, only changing. But shifting emotional states are more interesting than fixed ones; and so we see M as she attempts to create herself into existence again, through new romances, new work, new life.
Mara is predictably excellent; through her underrated, dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander & more recently the unspoken queerness of Therese Belivet in Carol, she conveyed emotion without saying anything, both when with others and on her own. The latter is called upon frequently here, & in the first half of the film we follow her every facial movement with rapt attention. Casey Affleck, meanwhile, spends most of the film covered by a large white sheet. Hmmmm.
Around the midway point the film takes a turn into entirely different territory & begins travelling through time at varying speeds, all while maintaining its sedentary visual pace and camerawork. The effect is strange and potent; we come to see Mara & Affleck’s couple as one story in the tapestry of human experience. It does not lessen the immense pain M is feeling; rather, it shows us that all people are living deeply personal episodes every day, and have done throughout time. There is something bigger than us at play; not remotely in a religious sense, but a connection between the lives we are living now and those of many, many centuries previously. This may sound schmaltzy or vague, but Lowery is a director entirely capable of handling such imprecise ideas. As he showed in the excellent Pete’s Dragon, the hit that allowed him to make A Ghost Story, he can tie them down with a sharp understanding of human emotion, and how to convey it to the audience. I believe it’s what people younger than me call ‘a feels trip’.
What also helps to stop the film from floating off into flights of fancy is a pointedly indie sensibility. Such small budget works require dedicated, talented individuals who can commit to a collective ethos; in composer Daniel Hart & cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo A Ghost Story has two of the best. Hart’s score is a waxing & waning presence, playing with our emotions without ever forcing the issue. Droz Palermo develops well on his underrated 2015 directorial debut One & Two; the whole film is bathed in a faint glow that relaxes the mind, allowing it to wander towards the deeper emotions. He measures those lengthy takes to perfection, recalling Malick at his best.
They are just one part of the idiosyncrasy; the white sheet, cartoon-villain ghost of the poster & trailer appears early on, & is then our guide through the rest of the film. He is a silent narrator; a gliding presence who lets us into each moment. It is an idea that occurs in another renowned ghost story; Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol also uses supernatural, eery figures to show us truths we don’t often give time to consider. In style and prioritisation of narrative, the two works could not be more disparate; but given the similarly worded title and this spectral likeness, there is a connection that spans the 174 years between their releases. This association is also the stuff of the film; Lowery is gently suggesting that we are all time travellers, and our pains and triumphs are significant not despite their ubiquity, but because of it. A Ghost Story occupies the same intellectual territory as 2001: A Space Odyssey and more recently Interstellar. It’s certainly not what you’d expect from a ghoul in a sheet.