by Philip Price
It's not what “A Ghost Story” is saying, but how it says it. Like chimes gently rustling in the wind or chills slowly creeping up your arms “A Ghost Story” somehow manages to give a sense of being so distant you're not one hundred percent sure what is causing the noise or the feeling, but at the same time it feels so deeply personal and so intimately cutting that deep down in your soul you know what it is. You know it's the wind, but you imagine something more ethereal. You know it's the melody of the song you're listening to, but you imagine it's because the singer is speaking directly to you; into your ear. It's difficult to describe past these dumbfounded attempts at articulating something meaningful just how much “A Ghost Story” hits you-that is, if it hits you. While it's difficult to describe all the emotions and thoughts this latest film from David Lowery (“Ain't Them Bodies Saints”) left me with I realize it will be just as difficult for some people to understand what the movie is, what it's trying to do, or what the big deal is at all. And in many regards, this is understandable. This is a very quiet film-a film where people don't communicate and we, the audience, must discern what is happening and what is being felt from that non-verbal communication. We must allow Lowery and his 4:3 aspect ratio images to wash over us in a way that requires a fair amount of patience. If patient, the film seemingly speaks to you. If not, there is no need to waste your time on it. For me though, “A Ghost Story” worked in stages in that at first, I was curious; never knowing where the story might lead or what might happen to the characters we see come in and out of the picture. Then, once the structure began to take shape, it became about the ideas-the themes of subjective spirituality, the concept of time and how it's the one thing we can't get more of no matter how rich we are, or the pain of dealing with loss and death and the inevitable nothingness everyone's future is likely to be, but that we hope and pray it's not. It's bleak. It's very bleak and it's very sad in how it captures small truths about life and the relationships we form while we're here. It's a film I find difficult to comprehend fully and thus is likely the reason it continues to resonate with me even days after seeing it and having watched several other films since. I keep returning to images, to sounds, and to the thoughts it instigated in my brain. It's a movie not for everyone, but if you find it's for you it's something special.
Lowery’s film opens with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s short story A Haunted House that, very much like Lowery’s film itself, is both easy and difficult to summarize. While one could simply describe “A Ghost Story” as that of the story of Casey Affleck’s unnamed character passing away during a relationship and his search in the after-life to come to some comprehension of the meaning of his previous existence it could also easily be described as so much more than that. Yes, we see Affleck and Rooney Mara co-exist as a couple for a short time before Affleck’s unexpected death and there are implications of arguments and issues, but nothing major that might set them on different paths the way his death so abruptly does. And while the scenes in which Lowery depicts the grief of Mara’s character and the achingly sad ways in which she copes (or doesn’t) it is when she ultimately goes against what Affleck’s character wished for them after his death that the movie does something even more interesting and frankly unexpected. While films certainly shouldn’t be judged or held against any personal expectation it is almost always a strange sensation when a film goes against such expectations in a way that improves upon those initial presumptions held by the viewer. This is what “A Ghost Story” so expertly does once it completes the arc one expects the entire movie to encapsulate based on the marketing. Time is very clearly a big theme here in that time is our most valued possession on this earth and that despite trying to find things to fill it, loves to make it more meaningful, and art to try and understand it-this concept of time, this structured thing that was never meant to be understood remains elusive. It comes to present this cyclical idea of time through its structure with only a single, heavy-handed scene on dialogue to reinforce such ideas, but beyond this preachy point it seems most audience members, if on board with the movie by that point anyway, will have caught what Lowery is laying down and are already willing to go along with his approach. Lowery’s script comforts us with the idea there might be finite points when trying to comprehend or organize the universe and how it deals in dispersing this heavy yet intangible presence, but what that screenplay does most effectively with time is give the audience a fair amount of it in between certain actions being taken that allow us to contemplate and consider what the film is saying as well as to fill in the gaps with our own personal experiences which, by default, makes the film feel that much more personal. And it’s not that “A Ghost Story” is completely meditative as there are things happening and we remain intrigued and invested because there truly is no telling where Lowery’s narrative could potentially go because it could seemingly go anywhere.
What is most endearing about “A Ghost Story” though is clear from very early on as the writer/director introduces us to this setting, this place that, coincidentally, almost feels trapped in time while Daniel Hart’s haunting score plays like a theme to a much bigger, more cataclysmic film-the juxtaposition of the serene images and large ideas being implemented early. In one of the first scenes of the film we see Mara’s character pulling a piece of furniture to the end of the driveway so that they might get rid of it; to notify a passer-by they are more than welcome to it if so desired. It is everything about this single shot be it the house itself, the flat and scruffy yard, down to the small detail most likely won’t take note of in that Mara’s character hasn’t fully put her shoes on, but rather has slipped her feet as much into them as she could while walking out the front door that grabs you. Granted, this comes with the caveat of wanting to be taken by the film as there is a need to look willingly for things all might not see to make a piece of “A Ghost Story” your own. There is an authenticity to everything this picture is painting, especially if you’re familiar with such terrain and the habits formed out of it. This continues as we’re welcomed inside the house and into the relationship of Affleck and Mara’s characters as he will drift in and out of conversations as if to suggest he isn’t as focused on their relationship as he maybe should be or she will give side glances where it never reveals what she’s looking at or allows her to speak so as to explain what she’s thinking, but instead the film lets us soak in these moments and decide for ourselves what might be going on internally-little truths that might bring our focus and thoughts around to moments in our own lives akin to such scenarios or circumstances. This speaks to the biggest thread that runs throughout the film as we see Mara’s character repainting the house she and Affleck shared before moving out and in before painting over a crack in the molding of a doorway she takes a small piece of paper, writes something on it, and places inside the wall of the house. It becomes the ghost at the center of this story’s objective to retrieve this note and yet it is left up to the viewer to decipher the real meaning. There is a similar moment where, soon after Affleck’s character dies that Mara’s character returns to the home they shared together and does something as small as throw a few pieces of mail away, but in doing so notices something in the trash. What she sees could be any number of things that remind her of this man who has suddenly left her life when not a week ago he made up so much of it. It could be nothing more than what it is likely the last thing he ever threw away, but the point is we get to decide how emotionally wrecked her character is by what she sees and this option is very much what the film gives the viewer as well. You can choose to be wrecked by it or not-it depends on how much meaning you attach to certain things and I, personally, attached much meaning to these proceedings.
While these ideas and themes become the nutrition of what might at first seem to be a somewhat scant meal what is almost more impressive is how Lowery is able to use the limited range of tools at his disposal to convey such atmosphere and a dream-like quality to his movie; creating an aura that allows the film to speak a language all its own. Of course, most noticeable is the framing of the film and how Lowery utilizes this now uncommon aspect ratio to make it feel as if, at least on the big screen (and I’m happy I saw this on the big screen), we’re peaking in on this couple-watching something we’re not really supposed to see. That’s the level of personal we feel we attain with this couple and later the spirit of one half of this couple. I’ve heard others say this choice of aspect ratio makes it feel as if we’re watching old home movies, but the perception is the same- “A Ghost Story” feels like portions of someone's life that were filmed, but maybe never meant to be viewed or cut together in the way a traditional feature is. It's a movie that isn’t constructed with typical story beats in mind either, but rather a way of materializing scenes and theories that explain what we all tend to "sense". In having to illustrate such elusive and sometimes hard to explain emotions Lowery takes advantage of Hart's aforementioned score in one of the handful of ways the director allows himself to play into the tropes of a genre horror film as, initially, the score will take you off guard and leave you confused and wondering if something isn't wrong with the audio in the theater only to crescendo at this moment of pure confusion for what we'll call the protagonist despite him being anything but your conventional hero. This is to say that Lowery uses several elements to not only make the experience more enthralling, but to further emphasize the emotions that are being felt on screen. Beyond this, there are of course a few qualms with the picture that keep me from scoring the film 10s across the board, but these largely should do with some silly moments that took me out of the experience rather than providing the temporary respite or slight comic relief they are likely intended to be. There are a few sequences that feature ghost subtitles that are just a little too goofily disruptive for what the rest of the movie is trying to accomplish while the scene featuring a prognosticator spewing a monologue set to the sounds of a dollar tree pop song gave the sense Lowery wasn't completely sure his audience would catch his drift. Trust me, Lowery-we did. I didn't need ghost convos or speculative explanations to make me feel better about the deeply sad ideas your movie explores. Strangely enough, I was comforted by the conclusions you seemed to draw in the meditative parts of your film that, while heartbreaking in many ways, gave me the chills...but, you know, the good kind.