A Ghost Story

Review by Adam Woodward @AWLies

Directed by

David Lowery

Starring

Casey Affleck Kenneisha Thompson Rooney Mara

Anticipation.

David Lowery is a serious talent.

Enjoyment.

Unusual and constantly surprising. A thinker…

In Retrospect.

Extraordinary. One of the year’s most original and best films.

Rooney Mara feels a spectral presence in this elegant slow-burner from director David Lowery.

What happens to us when we die? It’s a big question all right, arguably the basis of all religion, philosophy and art, a cornerstone of the human condition. And yet the head-scratcher at the heart of David Lowery’s elegant, elegiac latest is not a ‘what’ but a ‘how’. Shot through with anguish and yearning but crucially devoid of sentimentality, the film hinges on a heavy existential conundrum: after we shuffle over to the other side, how long do we continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those we leave behind?

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck previously starred alongside each other in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery’s soulful second feature from 2013, and they reunite to equally potent effect here, once again playing a young couple separated by circumstance. Early on we see them viewing a modest bungalow in suburban Texas, which they buy and soon settle into. For a while, everyday snapshots build a largely happy picture of their life together. They begin making plans for the future, and although his occupation as a struggling musician threatens to create a rift between them, the love they share is pure and plain to see.

Then tragedy strikes.

Cloaked in a white sheet with eyeholes conveniently cut out, Affleck (we can only assume it is indeed the actor beneath the cartoonish costume) quite literally becomes a spectral presence, passively observing Mara’s character as she attempts to reconcile her grief with the reality that life goes on. In the film’s standout scene, Lowery films her cry-eating an entire pie in an unbroken five-minute take. Grief can be sudden and all-consuming, but it can also manifest itself gradually in perfectly mundane ways, and this moment is by turns mesmerising in its simplicity and devastating in its emotional scope.

Exploring the various stages of bereavement from one woman’s perspective isn’t Lowery’s sole intention though, and eventually he shifts the focus away from Mara. Later, long after her character has said goodbye to the house, Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy appears in cameo at a dinner party where he delivers a Nietzschean monologue about the notion of legacy. It’s an unapologetically pretentious rumination on the futility of existence that reveals something of Lowery’s own agnostic take on mortality – if our souls really do endure, perhaps it is places, not people, they are destined to haunt.

Years pass. As the house falls into disrepair the ghost remains symbolically shackled to its pallid walls, until finally Lowery folds the film in on itself and we jump back to an unspecified period when this small plot of land was little more than dirt and grass, when America was still the New World. By disrupting the film’s fragmented yet hitherto linear rhythm in this way, Lowery further implies that the dead are not bound by the same laws of physics, time and logic which govern the living. It’s also an oblique nod to Texas’ most famous filmmaking son, Terrence Malick, who has explored love, loss and life’s journey in not dissimilar fashion, and whose influence Lowery openly acknowledges.

The most immediate sensation conjured by A Ghost Story is that of time passing. It’s about how even our most precious memories are perishable, how human beings invariably fade into the hazy ether of history. (Lowery’s decision to shoot in a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with rounded corners softening the frame, enhances the film’s timeless, dreamlike tone.) Less directly, it also feels like a comment on contemporary living in an age of constant distractions and stunted attention spans. A slow-burn modern gothic that rewards patience and repeat viewings, this is a strange, captivating work, much like the sight of a man dressed head-to-toe in a white sheet.

Published 8 Aug 2017

Tags: Casey Affleck David Lowery Rooney Mara

Anticipation.

David Lowery is a serious talent.

Enjoyment.

Unusual and constantly surprising. A thinker…

In Retrospect.

Extraordinary. One of the year’s most original and best films.

Read More

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

By Adam Woodward

The spirit of Terrence Malick is evoked in this tender western starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.

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Story of a Scene: David Lowery on A Ghost Story

By Manuela Lazic

The writer/director reveals how he convinced Rooney Mara to eat a pie for his haunting drama.

Under the Skin

By Violet Lucca

Jonathan Glazer’s erotic and philosophically-inclined feminist sci-fi fable is an extraordinary one-off.

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