A film review by Craig J. Koban August 12, 2017

RANK: #5


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.  


That's ultimately 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 past.  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 memory.  Lowery 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 originality.  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 husband.  As she tearfully leaves the coroner's room something strange happens: C's 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.  Dramatically,  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 film.  The 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.   

Most crucially, 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 did.   

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 years.  The cosmic magnitude of this ghost's personal journey through time and space is pretty awe inspiring in scope considering the film's low budget artifice. 

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 time.  I 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 over.   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 loneliness.  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.  


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