David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story, which screened at the Oak Cliff Film Festival, is not intended to frighten you. It is intended to haunt you and it almost certainly will – and more – if you have the patience the film requires.
A man (Casey Affleck) and a woman (Rooney Mara) lay in one another’s arms on a couch in the cluttered living room of a small starter house somewhere in Texas. Breaking the silence, she speaks, “When I was little and we used to move all the time – I would write these notes and I would fold them up really small and I would hide them.” “What’d they say?” Affleck mumbles in a cozy sleep deprived voice. “They were just like, things I wanted to remember so that if I ever went back, there would be a piece of me there waiting.”
A Ghost Story is a somber, meditative film that relishes in the power of small, intimate moments. From the opening shot, it’s clear that A Ghost Story is neither your average ghost story nor your average film. Filmed in boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, every shot of the film feels both ethereal and nostalgic.
The aspect ratio calls to mind old home movies, the past, and hazy memories. Which is appropriate because A Ghost Story is a film about the passage of time, and quite literally, nostalgia. Not nostalgia as we have come to understand it but the true, original definition. The Greek “nostos,” homecoming, the Greek “algos,” pain. The pain of wanting to go home and not being able to.
To no one’s shock, A Ghost Story is about a ghost. We meet Affleck and Mara’s unnamed characters (referred to in the credits as C and M respectively) in the middle of their mostly peaceful life together. Rooms are being packed, belongings stowed away. C couldn’t care less. His lack of enthusiasm for leaving is matched by M’s desire to stretch her legs. They can’t grow here. As is so often the case, the minute push and pull of daily life is interrupted by tragedy. C is killed in an early morning car accident on his way back to the house.
M is called to the hospital to identify his body. She excuses herself from the room. The camera lingers on the finality of C’s corpse on a stretcher for what feels like an eternity. Beat after beat of silence. A body on a cart draped in a white sheet. Finally, he rises. The classic ghostly figure with the trademark black eyeholes moves through the hospital in silence. A silent form observing the world around him but unable to interact. A spectator.
The Ghost slowly returns home through beautiful and somber shots of his striking figure floating through a field. Once he finally returns home, he finds it empty. He waits. M returns and The Ghost observes her as she moves through her life. Standing at a distance, unable to comfort his beloved as she continues to live her life after him.
The film revels in honest moments of the grieving process. Single moments of depressive behavior stretch out forever while weeks may move in a moment. Time moves differently for the grieving, and the same is true here for the dead mourning the loss of their place in the world.
As is always the case, time marches on. Static shots and beautiful editing convey the passage of time and clue the audience in on how this ethereal and eternal being of solitude must experience the world around him. Was that a second, a minute, a day, a month? The Ghost doesn’t know and neither does the audience. The effect is stunning because of – not in spite of – its simplicity. Lowery got his start in filmmaking as an editor and A Ghost Story contains many examples both of how integral editing is and how much of an effect it can have on a film.
The narrative moves through time but remains locked tight in space as The Ghost watches in silence, allowing you to project your own emotional reaction to the blank white space like a personalized movie of grief and desolation. Elaborating on the plot would be a disservice to the film and your experience of it because I suspect each person’s experience of A Ghost Story will be very different.
Mara and Affleck both do more with silence than many actors can achieve through monologue. Moving in silence, the film takes its time to meditate on life, death, love, art, and the place human beings hold in the universe. The film is not in a rush. Some will likely interpret that as being slow paced, but it is paced exactly as the filmmakers would like it to be. It is a bold choice to make a film like this, and the unique approach to storytelling and tone will likely prove divisive but I suspect Lowery and company do not care; this is an intensely personal film.
A Ghost Story is a triumph and a testament to the enduring power of filmmaking, as well as to the great work that can be done when a filmmaker is more concerned with making the film they envision than with broad acceptance. A simple story, taking full advantage of the strengths of the medium, it moves the audience like a ghostly hand under a sheet.
A24, the company behind The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Green Room and Ex Machina will distribute the film on July 7th with Picturehouse partnering on the UK release Aug. 11.
Nathan Steinmetz is a writer, critic, and cinephile. Horror, limited edition food, and David Lynch. Founder of Humanstein.com