'A Ghost Story'
Writer/director David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ shouldn’t work. It’s an existential exploration of life, death, love, loss, memory and time, in which the main character is a ghost covered by a bed sheet. That should be silly and distancing, and at times certainly feels that way. However, there’s a method to Lowery’s madness, a goofiness that undercuts the pretentions. Somehow, when the 90-minute experiment wraps up, he’s delivered not just a unique cinematic prank, but a genuinely profound film.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as a couple, known only as C and M, who have perhaps been together a little too long. Love is still there, but arguments are constant. He lives in the past, she dreams of the future. For some reason, C (Affleck) doesn’t want to leave their modest house, and after an unexpected accident, he never will. He dies and returns as a ghost wearing a bed sheet with eyeholes cut out, like in a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon. It’s goofy at first and Lowery has fun with the image. (A scene in which Affleck’s ghost communicates with another bed sheet phantom in a neighboring house is wryly amusing.) Then he sticks around, long past M’s period of mourning, through new residents whom he haunts in ghostly ways, and more whom he simply observes. Time passes, life moves on around him, and somehow this goofiest and most childlike of all ghostly images turns into a genuinely haunting figure and the centerpiece of some deeply moving cinematic poetry.
‘A Ghost Story’ is Lowery’s follow-up to last year’s ‘Pete’s Dragon’ remake. That’s both a wild departure and oddly appropriate. While this is very clearly an art film with influences stretching to existential masters, it’s also a movie that takes a familiar image and translates it into something far more moving and metaphoric than should be possible. That’s a trick that Lowery pulled off last summer with his beautifully imaginative and moving take on the old Disney cartoon. Here, it’s obviously something more ambitious. Lowery touches on grand, sweeping, primal themes, but does so in a manner that isn’t about finding obvious answers or meaning. He’s merely offering the opportunity to ponder, and the results are beautiful.
The film’s visual style is hypnotic. Lowery uses a 1.33:1 frame with rounded edges to appear like an old family slide show. Colors are muted and camera movements are long and lingering. The story is told almost entirely through visuals that slither up the back of your spine and into your mind. At times, the movie is creepy, at other times goofily funny. It reaches for profound ideas and realizations, but does so without forcing too much on viewers. Lowery takes his time, building meaning and weight through earned poignancy and cinematic sleight of hand. ‘A Ghost Story’ never feels like a gimmick, but a deeply personal film from an artist in complete command of his craft. It’s a delicate little project that easily could have spiraled off into navel-gazing pretentions or heartless scares. Somehow, Lowery avoids all the traps, provides constant surprises, and makes you care for a bed sheet ghost in ways that should be impossible.
Acting is strong, yet muted. That’s by design. Affleck and Mara mumble and experience angst. They have a lot of quiet stares through windows to determine meaning. However, it feels at one with the bizarre premise and execution of the piece. That’s what they needed to do. There’s honesty in those silences. Even during a much-discussed scene in which Mara eats an entire pie in a single grief-fueled take, the truth of the stunt resonates deeply. When the film expands to past and future, it feels right for this mediation on death and time. The pieces all fit together, even if the reasons why frequently come long after the startling images.
Obviously, ‘A Ghost Story’ won’t be for everyone. Many viewers will never get past the central conceit and consider it an art house wank. Fair enough, but not all ghost stories can be ‘Paranormal Activity’ spookies, nor should they be. The concepts of ghosts are more profound than things that go bump in the night. As Lowery proves, that’s true even of the simplest and silliest ghost images. The film is a special experience that feels very much of a piece with something like Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’ (an obvious stylistic influence, if not a thematic one) and should appeal to those viewers who enjoy such experiments with form.
It should also be noted that despite all the grand ideas and cinematic tomfoolery, ‘A Ghost Story’ is also rather playful and amusing. The project is so many things at once and yet also deceptively simple. Between this and ‘Pete’s Dragon’, David Lowery is starting to feel like one of the most intriguing and special filmmakers in America. Hopefully his next project is no less ambitious or ridiculous. He has a knack for turning silly ideas into genuine art.