A GHOST STORY
2017, R, 92 mins.
Rooney Mara as M / Casey Affleck as C
Written and directed by David Lowery
A GHOST STORY is not a horror thriller, despite what its title may hint at. It's more of a hypnotically haunting mood piece than a viscerally violent and frightening film.
what makes David Lowery's ultra low budget $100,000 indie effort so
enthralling: It's both a challenging slow burn affair about the
purgatory-like existence for a recently deceased man, but it's also a
deeply melancholic and thoroughly moving piece about how time works for
those stuck in this somewhat nightmarish in-between state while on a
journey towards some sort of heavenly afterlife.
A GHOST STORY is, yes, about a ghost's perspective of the world,
but it's infinitely more beyond that as it delves into themes of isolation,
hopelessness, and how people - in various forms - refuse to let go of the
Moreover, the film is a grand mental jigsaw puzzle for those that
are willing to tackle it, and especially for those that won't mind if all
of its pieces don't fit perfectly together.
This couldn't be
anymore different than Lowery's last film, a 2016 Disney produced remake
of PETE'S DRAGON, which I thought
was one of the most thanklessly decent family films and remakes of recent
injected that film with a studio blockbuster sheen that never took away
from its dramatic heart.
A GHOST STORY represents a complete 180 degree stylistic turn from his
previous effort, which audaciously dives headfirst into experimental avant garde cinema that dares to subvert our very expectations of the
material and genre that he's working within.
There have been innumerable films about ghosts, to be sure, but
very few have A GHOST STORY's profound sense of intrepid and surreal
Even what Lowery's technique puzzled me and severely tested my
patience at particular moments, I was so utterly mesmerized by its
atypical strangeness that the film became more intoxicating by the minute.
The story could
not be anymore simplistic.
There's very little, if any, exposition in the film as it places
viewers immediately within the day-to-day lives of its two main characters
(whom are given just initials instead of names), C (Casey Affleck) and his wife M (Rooney
Mara), who both live in a fairly underdeveloped house somewhere in Texas.
They seem relatively happy, but clearly there are emotional barriers
that impede them from being perfectly content.
One day C dies suddenly in a horrendous car crash, which leaves M
having to journey to the hospital to correctly identify the body as her
As she tearfully leaves the coroner's room something strange happens:
sheet covered body rises and proceeds to leave the hospital and make the long walk back to his home to silently
observe M's grief, all while being unable to communicate with her (like a
traditional ghost, he's invisible to the living).
Days turn into months and M decides to move on with her life, which
leads to new tenants moving in, but C's ghost is somehow unable to leave,
forever trapped in his own hellish form of denial.
Years move on with multiple new tenants and, in one case, one
gigantic alteration to the house, but C continues to stay put and observe
everything that continues to transpire there.
I don't really
want to say too much more about the narrative (if you could ever call it
that) to A GHOST STORY, other than to say that - throughout most of its
entirety - viewers are along for the ride with a character that's (a)
completely covered in a bed sheet with two black holed eyes and (b) incapable of verbal
communication or conveying emotion outside of physical gestures.
A GHOST STORY fulfills some of the basic genre requirements of what
could be called a haunted house picture, but the whole tone and viewfinder
through which it's presented is unlike anything I've seen before in any
ghost itself is a marvelously uncomplicated, yet nevertheless unnerving
creation steeped in solitary despair.
Despite its low rent Halloween costume appearance, this apparition
has a real weight and presence all throughout A GHOST STORY; watching it slowly and methodically lumber into frame and endlessly
stare at a life and earthly plane that it no longer can participate in as a
human is equals parts creepy and sad.
Even though the ghost expresses no outward facial expressions, you can
sense his paralyzing malaise and pain.
Lowery never takes the road most traveled approach with this material.
Very little, if anything, that transpires for C follows a
predictable - or even linear - path.
In terms of atmosphere, A GHOST STORY is a minimalist triumph,
especially for how it uses static camera setups and composition as well as
stillness to create a sensation of dread and unease.
There are a multitude of scenes that cement the plights of its
characters - corporeal or not - in a vacuum of shared helplessness that challenges
viewers to look at these unconventional moments and discern what Lowery is
trying to do with them.
A few key moments like this, it could easily be said, pushes the
boundaries of artful self indulgence, one of which involves a seemingly
endless take of C and M in bed as they fall asleep in each others arms in
what appears to be real time.
The other scene in question - almost excruciating to endure - shows
C's ghost pathetically watch his beleaguered wife angrily eat a whole pie
that was gifted to her by a concerned friend...all done in one unfathomably long take.
Scenes in movies rarely make me feel as uncomfortable as this one
But maybe that's
precisely the point.
C and M are rendered in this moment as a beings of intense sorrow that other lesser films would have glossed over.
They both are suffering and neither are able to reach out and
help. That, and it's paramount to Lowery's overall method of tackling how
the sins of time ravage through his characters.
Some shots, as just mentioned, linger for several minutes, whereas
later in the film demonstrate Lowery fostering some undeniably powerful segues, during
which time years have past between one shot to its very next.
What he's aiming for here, I think, is the crushing weight of
time and its power over C as he becomes trapped within it while trying to move on to his
next stage of afterlife existence.
The film also gets creative with time travel and how one act by the
ghost gets it thrust way, way back to the distant past to see what life
was like for people that lived where his home will be in a several hundred
cosmic magnitude of this ghost's personal journey through time and space
is pretty awe inspiring in scope considering the film's low budget
But that's the
subtle genius of Lowery's approach here.
He audaciously and lovingly crafts a film of humble production
design that still makes us think about its thematic density.
Key to this is his decision to shoot the entirety of A GHOST STORY
in the exceedingly rare 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio (virtually extinct in this
day and age) with small rounded borders on the corners to somehow make C's
paranormal existence all the more bizarre and otherworldly.
The cinematography by Andrew Droz has an economical beauty and
grandeur all to its own through the film, especially in the way he uses
light, shadow, and ominously lingering shots of doorways and empty spaces
consume us with disquieting feelings of what's to come.
The film does contain a few jump scares, but not of the
manufactured or overly telegraphed kind.
If anything, and unlike so many other filmmakers, Lowery more than
earns them here primarily because of his uniqueness of approach.
Aside from his
tremendous command of technique, Lowery's film makes us think and think
hard about what it's showing us, and oftentimes his story poses questions that
are never fully answered.
A GHOST STORY is about love and losing one's love in life too soon
and how beings on two different planes of existence have to
accept said loss and move on.
And C is a surprisingly empathetic character
because he seems incapable of moving on even after massive transitions of
understand why many will come out of A GHOST STORY despising it...and why it
was an extremely divisive film at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Viewers that find themselves jittery, impatient, and unwilling to
take this film's journey will probably walk out of it long before it's
But for those of you out there with Herculean attention spans and a
yearning to let Lowery's experimental approach wash over you, then you'll
find A GHOST STORY to be a profoundly moving rumination on heartache and
Lowery takes brave and polarizing chances with his film, but they
pay off handsomely.
And in a relative movie age that seems void of genre originality, A
GHOST STORY feels like a wholly innovative and welcoming antidote.