A Ghost Story

2017 – USA

Director: David Lowery

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham

Words: Josh Senior

A Ghost Story is one of those gems in a calendar year, an independent release that gets the promotion it deserves. It really does, David Lowery’s latest film is one of the most important to be released in 2017, and that’s an understatement.

Lowery has had an accelerated if odd trajectory to reach his current acclaim as a director, first really coming to attention with his 2013 proto-western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which also featured Affleck and Mara. Then he followed this up by directing the live-action Pete’s Dragon for Disney, which (speaking as the parent of a young child) really stands out in the plethora of children’s movies released in the last three years. From indie darling, to a big studio safe pair of hands, Lowery is now working in unfamiliar waters once again, tasked with delivering a third film that differs from his previous efforts. He does so with A Ghost Story, a daintily beautiful snapshot of life, love and reality.

In its basic essence, the film follows a young couple C and M (Affleck & Mara), who are living somewhere in a cosy Texas suburb. When tragedy strikes and Affleck’s character suddenly dies, he remains trapped in-between life and death as a ghost, literally a white sheet with holes for eyes, and must watch as his wife deals with her grief and then attempts to move on with her life, leaving him behind. He then lingers on in the house he used to call home and has to live alongside the future tenants as months, years and even decades roll by with no halt for the merciless roll of time.

Lowery is attempting to tackle the biggest of themes with this work in taking a bite out of mortality and the reason for existence, which at once sounds incredibly pretentious. However, his handling of the subject matter is done in such an oddly satisfying manner that this never comes across as anything other than impressive. The film is put together in a rather unconventional way with long takes of seemingly banal situations, shot in a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with rounded corners softening the frame, or random moments of quiet, and it engrosses you completely. Two standout scenes being a long take of the characters (pre-death) as they lie in bed and share a sleep hazed embrace, which feels so real it’s a testament to their talents as actors, you almost feel like you shouldn’t be watching, as it’s such a pure moment. The second is a 5-minute take of Rooney Mara sitting on the floor and crying while she eats a pie (post-death) as the ghost lingers in the background. You can’t take your eyes off it, not for one second.

Daniel Hart also crafts a luscious mood-board of sound which flits in and out almost seamlessly to add a real aura around the narrative events. Lowery introduces his characters as struggling musicians, and so the music comes from diegetic origins and then transcends into the surreal, as we move from life to death and back round again, losing track of where the narrative really began and where we are.

There is a common theme in Lowery’s films of two people trying to get back to each other and their journeys in doing so. In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints Bob Muldoon escapes prison after not seeing his wife, Ruth, for several years in a desperate bid to be re-united with her, and faces a battle of epic proportions in doing so. The question in that story is whether Ruth is still in the same place as Bob emotionally when they do eventually meet. Pete’s Dragon, similarly deals with a young boy trying to escape back into the woods where he has lived with his pet dragon for years after the death of his parents, the duality of this film is the moral question of living outside of society and because it’s a Disney film it does manage to find a satisfactory answer to this question, inevitably.
A Ghost Story is almost the spiritual third entry into this trilogy of films, charting a man’s journey to return to the thing he loves. All three question the viewer, whether returning to where the characters start is the best thing for them in the long run.

To put it simply, this film is, and will be considered one of the best films of the year when we look back in six months or so. To experience it in a cinema is a real delight and if you haven’t already it’s the perfect chance to immerse yourself in the works of a director who is going from strength to strength.
Up next Lowery will bring us The Old Man and The Gun, a western starring Robert Redford and he is also slated as the director for Disney’s live-action reboot of Peter Pan. It will be interesting to see how he transplants his overarching theme onto both of these, and I for one cannot wait.