There are few better experiences on this earth than being changed by a piece of art. It eventually wears off; that’s part of what makes it so special. The fact that it doesn’t last makes you appreciate all the more how rare and wondrous an occurrence it is. That’s just what happened to me with A Ghost Story. This is a transcendent film, amazing and unique. It’s a quiet examination of loss and grief, but on a cosmic scale.
Proving that a creative mind can make the oldest, most clichéd idea fresh again, director David Lowery put the title ghost in a bed sheet, complete with two cut-out eyeholes. Before A Ghost Story, the last time the bed sheet ghost was used with anything approaching emotional resonance was 35 years ago. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Elliott and his friends dressed their alien companion in the costume on Halloween night to magical effect.
This idea of what ghosts look like – which is over a century old, and is a kind of pop-cultural rendering of death shrouds – is integral to Lowery’s thematic cleverness. He took an idea seemingly sapped of all aesthetic relevance and gave it newfound weight and meaning. He shows us the world through those eyeholes and, in the process, transforms it into a mystical place.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet a young couple. They never call each other by name, which seems strange, but at the same time realistic. Think about it, how often to you refer to your significant other by their actual name? The end credits only refer to them as C and M, and they are played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, respectively. In the first 20 minutes, we see their domestic life in brief snippets. C is a musician, and he works from home. The two have arguments about selling their house and moving somewhere else. He wants to stay, but she wants to leave. It’s all made moot when C is killed in a car crash.
After M identifies C’s body at the morgue, she spends a few silent moments with his body before walking out. Then, something strange happens. Setting the tone and pace for the rest of the movie, the camera doesn’t follow her. It sits, motionless, for what feels like ages. Finally, M sits up, covered in the sheet the coroner has placed over him. It’s a testament to how engrossed I was in the eerie and ethereal tone the film establishes (or maybe it’s just my forgetfulness) that I can’t remember precisely when the eyeholes appear.
The rest of A Ghost Story strives for profundity on a host of topics. It succeeds. In the short term, we see M’s struggle with grief, and C’s inability to comfort her. In the long term, we see, well, just about everything else. C can’t let go of his attachment to M, or the house he was so reluctant to move out of when he was alive, so he simply lingers there, long after M has moved out and on with her life.
Anyone familiar with Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, another piece of art that deeply moves me every time I see it, will recognize similar themes at work in A Ghost Story. One scene in particular addresses the essential human need to matter. It works as a thesis statement for the movie, essentially describing the fantastical journey C’s ghost will take throughout the rest of the picture. C watches as some new residents throw a house party, and one man holds court on how important people think it is to be remembered after they die. He comes to the nihilistic conclusion that due to the sheer scope of time involved in the lifespan of the universe, no attempt by one human to be remembered will ever endure.
It’s a scene that would feel right at home in a Richard Linklater movie. Any detractor of A Ghost Story would probably use it as Exhibit A of why the film spells out too much, as opposed to letting the audience come to their own conclusions. As a person who sometimes struggles with being too literal, I appreciated the scene for its explicative, if philosophically bong-induced, purposes.
Besides C’s (and our) transcendent expedition beyond the infinite late in the film, the movie explores touching human emotions. Rooney Mara gives a raw performance with practically no dialog, and nothing to react to besides crushing inner turmoil. She and the director teamed up for a sequence that took a great amount of trust, both in their ability to pull it off, and in the audience, for being willing to endure it.
A friend drops off a pie as comfort food for M, and leaves a note expressing her condolences. When M gets home, she finds the pie and the note, and absent-mindedly grabs a fork for a few bites. C watches silently from the living room as she eats. In one unbroken take that lasts at least five minutes, Mara quietly sits on the kitchen floor, and proceeds to eat the entire pie. It’s a heartbreaking moment showing someone in a deep depression eating her emotions, something that’s not unfamiliar to me.
Mara also injects a mournfulness into one of Lowery’s central themes of A Ghost Story using only her face. The idea that artifacts of our lives take on different meanings and new resonance as things change is expressed as M silently listens to a song C recorded. The movie cuts between a close-up of her tortured expression as she listens, and the first time C played the song for her, when she wasn’t as engaged with it because of a fight the two were having.
Casey Affleck has the even harder job of transmitting a performance from underneath a sheet. Actor Michael Fassbender faced a similar challenge playing a character who wears a giant paper-mâché head for the entirety of the delightful movie Frank. Both actors prove they have enough screen presence to deliver something unique and memorable. In Frank, Fassbender was able to use both body language and his voice for his performance. Without a single word of dialog after his character dies, Affleck can’t even rely on his voice. In one scene, he is somehow able to express sorrow with just his hand as he caresses Mara’s head when she weeps.
While A Ghost Story is emotionally crushing at times, it’s also has a hopeful quality. It gives the impression that we shouldn’t always be overwhelmed by the grief that inevitably comes with life. That is exemplified by the brief moments of perfectly placed comedy. As C gazes out of a window, he sees another ghost in the house next door. The two have a few non-verbal conversations which are relayed on the screen with subtitles. In a quirky nod to the idea of hiding his actors under sheets, Lowery cast the famous singer Kesha as the other ghost, who tells C that she is waiting for someone, but she can’t remember who anymore. It’s what happens when the other ghost finally realizes it’s time to let go that the possible message for A Ghost Story becomes clear. We aren’t here long, so enjoy the ride while it lasts, and appreciate every fleeting moment.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- The glacial pace won't be to everyone's liking, but this movie really spoke to me. Lowery creates a very special mood in A Ghost Story. It's one of the most unique movies of the year.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is a magical bit of editing when C watches M leave the house over and over again in one unbroken take. She comes out of the bedroom, grabs her keys, and heads out the door multiple times, elegantly symbolizing how much time is passing.
- I didn't mention it in the review, but there are aspects to A Ghost Story that call to mind Terrence Malick. Lowery achieves a lyrical beauty to many of his shots.
- This movie was made for $100,000. It looks like it was made for 100 times that. Lowery's cinematographer, Andrew Droz Paleromo, did a phenomenal job.
- Last thing: A note about the aspect ratio: Lowery chose to shoot this smaller budget film in the classic Academy Ratio of 1.33:1 (it looks like a box, as opposed to a wide rectangle). He said he did it because he wanted his ghost character to feel trapped in the frame. He also said he did it to give the movie a nostalgic feel. He heightened that by adding "vignetted" edges. The frame is rounded on each corner. It's really visually interesting, and I'm a sucker for a filmmaker playing with that sort of aesthetic device. He talks about that, and a lot of other stuff in this excellent interview with The Verge. One of the things he says is: "Sentimentality on a visual level is very satisfying to me. Even though the film is ultimately about letting go of sentimentality, I wanted the images to have a sentimental quality." That quote makes me very, very happy.
- Last thing, I promise: As always, I want to give a shout to Texas-based filmmakers. David Lowery was born in Wisconsin, but his family moved to Irving, a suburb of Dallas, when he was 7. So, not only is he a Texas filmmaker, he's a Dallas filmmaker, which is where I call home!
- Super last thing: I think this movie did so much to me emotionally because I highly value storytelling (of any kind) that explores the fact that this is our one go-round, and you had better get as much as you can out of it. It's a ghost story, as in, it holds a world view that says there is something after we die. I don't hold to any of that, but it doesn't matter. It is, after all, only a movie. What A Ghost Story says about life by way of supernatural elements is what matters to me.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Next week I'll be looking at Ingrid Goes West, a movie starring, and produced by, Aubrey Plaza. It's a comedy-drama about, among other things, social media obsession.