A Ghost Story (2017) Review

"A Ghost Story can be a meditation on almost anything you want it to be. "

by Steve Pulaski

If you're not careful, and you go into David Lowery's new film A Ghost Story with a patient, open mind, you might emerge more introspective and aware of your own feelings and place in the world. That's what a minimalist movie concerning grandiose existential thought will do to a person. Even if I don't fully understand all of Lowery's ideas embedded in this film, though I promise to make a committed effort with subsequent viewings, the fact that I emerged feeling something in addition to being treated with substantial intrigue proved that I had at least gotten something worthwhile.

A Ghost Story is a timeless, memorable movie with a great deal of elegance behind its subversive premise. Shot over the course of a few days for about $100,000, featuring two Oscar-nominated actors coming off sizable hits for their respective filmography, the film concerns two nameless individuals that live together in the rural countryside. He (Casey Affleck) is a struggling indie musician who clearly gets pleasure from the archaic and nostalgic. She (Rooney Mara) often feels handcuffed to his indecision and passion, which is beginning to force her to make the serious decisions.

All of this is discarded, however, when we see the aftermath of two vehicles that have collided either in the early morning or early evening - we're not so sure. All we see is his body hunched over at the steering wheel, bloody and motionless. Shortly after she leaves the morgue where her husband - or boyfriend - lies on a cold hospital slab with a white sheet placed over his corpse, he is seen rising from the table, the sheet elevated with him. He is a ghost in the crudest, most kindergarten sense, with two cutouts for eyes and the uncharacteristic sheet cloaked over him. No one else can see him and he wanders through the hospital before finding his way home after confronting a void.

The ghost is at the mercy of time and its passage. He observes his significant other carry on in his absence, at one point, watching her angrily devour an entire chocolate pudding pie for four static, uninterrupted minutes before throwing it all up in the bathroom. Eventually, she packs up and leaves and a new family moves in, helmed by a Spanish-speaking single mother (Sonia Acevedo) with two young children. Through it all, the ghost mostly remains passive, occasionally making the lights flicker or sending a cabinet full of porcelain plates flying. Mostly, he can be found on the couch or leaning against the walls like a shy party guest.

One of the ghost's favorite activities is chipping away the paint on the corner of one of the house's walls despite only getting a few swipes at it before he's interrupted by people entering the home or children being loud. Again, the ghost is victim to the passage of time and nothing else, eventually seeing the ultimate fate and recreation of the home in which he spends most of his time as well as that of another neighboring spirit, a ghost cloaked in a sheet with a floral pattern.

At one point, the ghost's house becomes occupied with several twentysomethings that all gather around a table to hear a college-aged, autodidact philosopher (Will Oldham) nihilistically prognosticate the future of the world and the fate of all of man's creations. This is a key scene because it does what Lowery's long-takes and prolific lingering can't do and that's give viewers some guidance on the film's themes. The beautiful part of this film, one of many, is that I'm not sure Lowery has a concrete assortment of themes and ideas he wants you to extract; this is an experience that can be personal and meaningful to someone in ways completely foreign to someone else. Its impressionist qualities are fluid; they run deep into the film's subtext to overtake and become one of the central ideas to its carefully orchestrated methods.

Affleck and Mara function well, even though their performances are more motion-based than emotion-based, I'd argue. Their body languages convey alternate meanings and Mara's emptiness is really shown during that pie-eating scene. Lowery - who enjoyed some mainstream admiration after directing Disney's live-action remake of Pete's Dragon - reunites the two great actors he used for his film Ain't Them Bodies Saints and gives them an even stranger, deeper premise with which to work.

For Affleck in particular, coming off a much-deserved Oscar win for his emotional, grieving performance in Manchester by the Sea, one wonders if he wanted to continue to challenge himself with a role that effectively makes emotions and feelings of dread that much more difficult to channel as they remain obscured and sanitized with the presence of a white-sheet.

Visually speaking, A Ghost Story gives off the appearance of a home-movie that was meant to be projected on 16mm film and nothing of higher quality. Shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, with the left and right sides of the screen taken over by "black bars" and the corners of the film rounded out, the film is elegantly presented in a way that looks like a Polaroid photograph. Lowery's decision to do this came with his opinion that the premise of the film felt subjectively claustrophobic, and that the characters in it functioned as if they were in a box simply trying to escape. It does wonders for the clarity and meticulous detail of the film, making the rustic colors of the film pop as much as the more flowery whites and pinks.

A Ghost Story can be a meditation on almost anything you want it to be. Life, death, greed, ego, legacy, grief, and purpose are what I immediately extracted, and obviously some of that is drawn from personal experience and opinion. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said that "art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self," and A Ghost Story is one of the only American films of the decade - up there with Richard Linklater's Boyhood and Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, both of those films inspirations and influences for this particular picture - I've seen brave enough to illustrate that so poignantly.

Steve's Grade: A+


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