A Ghost Story (2017)
Director: David Lowery | Runtime: 1h 32mins | Drama, Fantasy
After being killed in a car accident outside his own home, a ghost simply known as ‘C’ (Casey Affleck) returns covered only in a white sheet to watch as his grieving wife (Rooney Mara) deals with her loss and the inevitability that she will move on.
Lowery hasn’t had a career with huge exposures, early works include a screenplay directed by Joe Swanberg, 2009’s Alexander The Last, a brief contemplation on marriage and modern day relationships toeing the line between pretentious and a cerebral introspect. He did move into the limelight for the live action remake of Pete’s Dragon (2016), and while it wasn’t a box office bomb or a critical failure, it didn’t impress audiences and critics leading to a fairly middling to so-so response. It was uninspired and seemed that Lowery had lost his way.
Going back to his earlier roots with his followup project, Lowery shot A Ghost Story in secret as he and the crew were unsure how it was going to turn out, and only had a budget of $100,000. Luckily for both the crew and film audiences, it was for the better, and in the way that Alexander The Last feels both pretentious and introspective, but at the same time not really about anything, A Ghost Story tells a much clearer message on grief and love, and creates a poignant exploration of living.
It does so with a very aesthetically interesting cue of Casey Affleck in a white sheet. Fresh off an Academy Award for Best Actor, it was bold to cover almost all the emotions, leaving Affleck to dramatise C and the way in which he deals with the situation. Much of the film is slowly paced, many sequences consist of Rooney Mara’s ‘M’ alone, very little dialogue or action to speak of. One sequence in particular stands out for it’s way of telling so much about M without saying a single word; she sits on the kitchen floor and eats a pie her sister gave her, in it’s entirety, and runs to the toilet throwing it all back up. There are no camera movements or cuts, and yet it tells us the frame of mind she is in, trying to listen to the note her sister left saying she should eat something but really being completely lost, unable to go back to normality.
For some, this would certainly be overly pretentious, conceited filmmaking. That would spread across the rest of the piece though, as Lowery fully embraces this aspect; the over-produced blockbuster certainly wasn’t his wheelhouse, the smaller, contained stories with minimal characters are where he really shines.
It isn’t all M grieving though, as C attempts to embrace her as she kisses another man. At this point, we’re unsure how much time has passed, and the crushing reality for C really starts to set in. She has moved on, and he will be like this for a long, long time. We can assume that C can’t leave the house, something confirmed when M eventually moves out and other families and groups come and go, all whilst C has to observe. Occasionally he can knock some books off a shelf, or flicker the lights, but his interactions are far from substantial now. The only time he has the chance to do anything remotely human is a very simple and brief conversation with another ghost in the opposite house, consisting off raising the hand and a short subtitled conversation.
Potentially the most affecting aspect to A Ghost Story is that there is no real conflict. C doesn’t have an evil to defeat or finds a way back to the living, inside he just observes. It isn’t just Lowery behind the camera that makes the simplicity work though, as cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo uses the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, using the boxlike nature of the frame to recreate the claustrophobia that C feels, trapped inside the box of a house for eternity.
After M’s exit from the narrative, it takes a route that delves further into the themes of death and grief, exploring the nature of existence and the finality of life. Whether it’s a film that connects because it dives into existential human thoughts, or because the aesthetically beauty of the piece is so appealing, there is much to gain from the hour and a half journey that Lowery takes us on.