A Ghost Story
By: Arlene Allen
There are movies and there are films. A Ghost Story is a film, a beautiful piece of literary cinema. Written and directed by David Lowery, the film follows the ghost of a deceased man (Casey Affleck) searching for the meaning of his continued existence or his eternal existence. The film stretches out, speeds up and bends time, just as time is wont to do for the recently bereaved. But who is the bereaved? Is it the spouse, the ghost or the house?
M (Rooney Mara) is a woman who has never spent more than a couple of years in one place and is prone to leaving notes tucked behind when she leaves. After the death of C (Affleck), she leaves the house. But C seemingly stays behind, watching one occupant after another move in to the dwelling. In scene after existential scene, the viewer is left pondering the meaning of place, of life and of death.
This definitely requires some thinking on the part of the viewer, who may or may not be spoiled after a summer full of action movies. The pacing can be slow – deliberately slow – including one almost excruciatingly long pie eating scenes. But like all of the classics of great ghost literature, the pacing is a mechanic used to emphasize other aspects of the narrative. The short story “A Haunted House” by Virginia Woolf is referenced more than once during the course of the film, and as in Woolf, Lowery plays with the concept of memory and attempting to find that which has been lost. In fact, I would highly recommend a reading of “A Haunted House” in conjunction with viewing this film or at least the Spark Notes, especially if you find yourself scratching your head at the end. There’s no way to know if Lowery was inspired or influenced by Woolf’s story, but the fact that the story is referenced can’t be coincidence – nothing else about the film is.
Although it is dark and nihilistic in parts, the overall theme of love and connection prevails. Press notes state that this is Lowery’s labor of love, and if we take the monologue of the prognosticator (Will Oldham) into consideration, may be his contribution to cinematic immortality.
The film is shot in 1:33 ratio, which makes the screen and film appear as if it’s an old 1970’s snapshot, or perhaps an image viewed through a viewfinder. I am concerned that if a moviegoer does not know this ahead of time, there may end up being needless complaints to the projectionist as well as leading to confused people walking out. It’s part of the gimmick and/or magic of the film – you decide – but if you don’t buy in right away, you may never buy in at all.
Music is an important aspect of the narrative too, especially the achingly lovely song that is C’s final composition. Composer Daniel Hart used a song written for and performed originally for his band Dark Rooms called “I Get Overwhelmed” and I can’t imagine a choicer selection for this film. Hart also used experimental digital noises throughout as well, creating sounds that are alternatively creepy, jarring and, well…haunting.
Both Mara and Affleck have worked with Lowery before on his film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
(2013) and Lowery knows how to make his stars shine. Affleck had the greatest and most nuanced performance of this feature because it’s hard to make an impact from underneath a sheet, but he does.
However, in the end, everything you take away from A Ghost Story is up to you, the viewer. Just as nobody can define life and loss, you must divine your own meaning from what Lowery and his talented cast have presented to you. It’s also worth checking into the film’s IMDB page for further trivia and surprises (you will never guess who appears as “Spirit Girl”).
Final Analysis: Not everyone’s cup of tea, certainly, but if you appreciate art and literature you won’t want to miss it. B+