Film Review: A Ghost Story
by Angelique Jones
“Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting” – A Haunted House, Virginia Woolf
A devastatingly poignant and haunting ghost story about the fragility of human experience, portrayed through the unusual perspective of a ghost as he faces eternity. David Lowery’s indie film, A Ghost Story, illuminates our existential crisis in a painstakingly original form. This slow-burner forces us to voyeur into the incommunicable grief and pure sadness of unexpectedly losing a loved one through the eyes of the white cladded ghost, which have been literally cut out of a sheet in the resemblance of a Halloween costume. Using the absurdity of a trick-or-treat ghost without a face, we are encouraged to project ourselves onto the blank sheet and thus engage in real introspection.
M, (Rooney Mara), and C, (Casey Affleck) are a young loved-up couple living together in a house that seems to be haunted by sudden noises. When C unexpectedly dies in a car crash, we are faced with the incomprehensible emotions of coming to terms with your own mortality. As Affleck’s dead body rises from the morgue and transmutes into a ghost right before our eyes, he takes the same white sheet that covered him as the costume for his new, liminal identity: do the dead need closure too?
The camera follows this white sheeted figure back to the couple’s house to painfully witness his lover experience grieving loss and then life, as she moves on emotionally and physically without him. In a desperate, yet impossible attempt to communicate with her, he waits for a message, recognition that his legacy will live on beyond his physical decay. And thus, his body lingers, bound to a past echoed through fragmented flashbacks to their shared life in the house; a house which divided the desires of both lovers, with C wanting adamantly to stay.
“Creative experimentation,” to quote Lowery, overrides a linear narrative structure. He favours style and contemplative imagery to drive this slow-burner. Editing provokes a perpetual hopelessness of the ghost’s wait, challenging our perceptions of time with hard cuts to explore past and present, and its indistinguishable place in the present.
Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography captures the timelessness of this story, juxtaposing shots of the small enclosure of the house with the expansiveness of the outdoors of rural Texas with slow, pensive shots. The film is drenched in a beautiful, eerie fog that defies any specific era, and invites contemplation and some very personal responses.
Unusually long camera stills and a minimal script test our patience and comfortability, giving the audience space to meditate on the existential questions raised. The unsaid points to the subtext and the unexpressed, the imagined or lost moments - the idea that you should live everyday as if it is your last. What is said is utterly thought-provoking, with Will Oldham’s guest interjection of a philosophical theologically-charged, and definitative speech offering a climactic momentary relief to the silence. Lowery shot the ghost at a different frame to enable an ethereal, supernatural quality without using special effects or transparency. It works. He told The Verge that this “distended” effect of the 33 frame per second rate – as opposed to the rest of the film’s 24-frame per second rate - makes “you feel everything a little more profoundly.”
The blank white sheet encourages us to project ourselves and partake in a self-inquiry that is very rare in films; and the in-your-face costume successfully eschews any comical tones.
Time is cyclical and painstakingly eternal. The house that is stubbornly haunted by the phantom is the site for re-growth and change, as tenants move in and out, time catapults to future high-rise developments and reverts back to the primeval where only soil and grass occupy the space - and the ghost. What remains is the emotion, regret, grief and loss, but the memories and moments fade.
"Do the dead need closure too?"
Grief, alongside its human expression, is so integral to the film that the audience becomes the silent witness, much like the ghost. This is no more apparent than in the “pie scene”: an unpleasant five-minute viewing of Rooney Mara’s character eat an entire pie, in real-time, amidst the depths of her mourning. This random manifestation of grief challenges our viewing expectations, as the extended sequence forces us to be present, and “exist” in a place that cannot be expressed through words, largely removed from mainstream narratives. This scene is what director Lowery says, unintentionally, functions as the “litmus test” for whether audiences are “with this film or not.” If you can sit this one through you will be opened to a whole new world of cinematic experience – and you probably won’t be able to look at a pie the same way again.
Acting behind the white sheet, (donned by both Affleck and Art Director, David Pink) is so profoundly moving that you’ll need to forget the allegations against Affleck and just let this movie take you into the dusty recesses of your conscience which allows you to feel like the walking sheet is in fact a “spirit.” You also may have to put the subtitles on for Affleck's lines, as his mumbled tones can make you feel as though you’re watching some very intimate, secret moments, carefully sprinkled throughout. But then this minimalism of script and character backstory is what makes the film so special, and illuminates the skill behind Affleck and Mara’s understated portrayals.
A Ghost Story is a refreshingly poignant experimentation that uses the power of film to linger strikingly on the human condition. It forces you to plot your own interpretations onto the ghost, and participate in a universal conversation: the conversation about our place in the universe, about love. Embrace the creativity and symbolism of this film, let the chilling soundtrack permeate your skin and observe some inspirational film craft.
All image credit: A Ghost Story (2017) | A24 | IMDB