It isn’t totally uncommon for many great directors to suddenly decide to abandon the Hollywood path of filmmaking and go back to their independent roots. M. Night Shyamalan, Joss Whedon, Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Soderbergh have all done this in the past. Now, writer/director David Lowery has done the same; moving from doing Pete’s Dragon (2016) to directing a film that cost just $100,000 to make. And it has paid off hugely; A Ghost Story is unlike anything else this year, and is certainly one of the year’s best films, although I do find it difficult to recommend it to most people…
Ghost Story is the very definition of distributer A24’s mantra of making “movies from a distinctive point of view”. It tackles the themes of the passage of time, coping with loss, love and the inevitability of the futility of one’s legacy. This film is pretty much the exact opposite of everything that people will be going to see this summer, and yet, it is so much better. The story unfolds when C (Casey Affleck), a struggling musician is killed in a car accident. His wife M (Rooney Mara) is overwhelmed with grief and doesn’t know that C’s ghost, literally a ghost, has returned to look over her whilst she copes with her loss. Over the course of years, as she moves out and other tenants move in, C becomes a part of the house and begins to understand, that time and the human spirit, are beyond any kind of human perception. There is a whiff of Terrence Malick to the way that this film has been made, but that isn’t entirely surprising, when I watched it, some people in the audience walked out halfway through.
The story can be frustrating to understand; very visual, and very little dialogue within and because of that, it does feel very slow, so not everyone will like it for that. But this is a radical change of pace for director David Lowery, and I have the greatest respect for him for that. Most directors today move on from making indie movies to bigger Hollywood productions, but what he has done, is gone back to the reason why he makes movies in the first place, to tell a story in his own, unique way. this is the case for nearly every film that comes under the production or distribution of A24; proper filmmaking with no boundaries when it comes to storytelling. This is the kind of film you go to watch that makes you think, if you go in expecting an easy explanation, that would be stupid. All of this makes the story to Ghost Story unique; a ballad of the perception of time and the endurance of the human spirit in perfect harmony, you can’t explain one without the other in this film.
In order for these messages and themes to work, the story needs good acting; not the style you would normally see in a Terrence Malick film, much subtler than that, much more relatable and worthy of connection to the audience. And that is exactly what Casey Affleck has managed to achieve, despite not saying much throughout the film. The scenes when he is not a ghost, are warm, reassuring and very humanistic, but when he puts the sheet on, everything changes. His thoughts and feelings are shown through the use of his movement and is by far, the highlight of the film. It’s a role that we haven’t seen before, and that makes this film unique above all others, not just this year, but I think, of all films that you could think of.
Now, obviously, being shot on a budget of $100,000 doesn’t leave room for fancy VFX or Kevin O’Connell sound design, the world of Ghost Story is silent and still. Even the sounds of everyday life; children playing in the streets, people having parties, the sounds of nature, all of these effects have been muffled and distorted whenever you see C’s Ghost in the room; the perception of reality to humans is now distant in the afterlife. It seems then that this film takes a simple approach to display complex ideas; a difficult thing to pull off.
In many ways, I would compare the way this film brings its message to Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2016); it may not be easy to understand, but has true poetic beauty as to how it tells a story. And like it, A Ghost Story has a very soulful score that feels a little disjointed at times; when the mood turns very sad or sombre, the music can seem a little bit happy, but that is exactly the point. The Ghost is still there, there is still some degree of presence and legacy, even when the body is lost to death; it transcends physical meaning. The score does exactly that in spectacular style; it isn’t fast, it isn’t exciting, its actually quite slow, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The overall feel of this film is slow, and this extends to the way this film looks.
Don’t expect especially fancy production design, you’ll get a small, one story house in the middle of rural America with beige walls and a wooden exterior and that’s your lot. But you can get an awful lot out of this place; little details like cracks in the walls hiding notes, photographs of the past, the ever-present piano that has never moved and even the bog-standard lighting that flickers in the presence of the ghost. It is a little slice of Americana where we see how time unfolds and how C’s Ghost becomes more a part of the house than when he was alive. The house itself is actually very pretty and when put into context with the fields around it, it is like watching Days of Heaven all over again, although, this isn’t the first time this trait has happened in a David Lowery film.
The biggest feature in making the look of this film interesting that everyone will definitely notice, is how they approached the cinematography. Andrew Droz Palermo has managed to capture a film like aesthetic with the Arri Alexa Mini, but has chosen a rather unusual aspect ratio in order to frame the film. It isn’t 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, it is actually 1.33:1, closer to 8-16mm film than 35mm. The film mainly uses natural light to bring the audience into the story and all of the camera movements and actions are all as slow as the passage of time displayed in the film. Yet thanks to the editing from David Lowery himself, it doesn’t feel like an eternity. Because of the aspect ratio, it almost feels like a home movie; first time I can say that the cinematography has a distinctly human characteristic.
In many ways, the look of the ghost is decidedly human as well, even though underneath the sheet, there is no silhouette or outline of the human body. And yet, it is the image that springs to mind whenever the word ‘ghost’ is mentioned; it has taken the common, more metaphorical perception of ghosts in film and television, and brought it back to what it used to be.
A Ghost Story is a very unique film; it may not be for everyone, but I don’t care about that. I love this film, this unconventional approach to dissecting the meaning of time and legacy, I just hope that everyone can watch and experience it, in the way that I did.
I give this film a 9/10.