A Ghost Story is a must-see film for 2017 that will haunt you long after you first view it.
Director: David Lowery/2017
David Lowery received a lot of notice for his small film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. He was tapped to head the big budgeted Pete’s Dragon remake for Disney and delivered a strong film, opening up even more doors for himself in the future. What many did not know is that he took some of the money he made from Pete’s Dragon and secretly filmed an even smaller film than Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, again starring Affleck and Mara, with Affleck fresh off his Oscar win for Manchester By the Sea. The result is a hauntingly beautiful film that has much to say, without needing many words to convey its meaning.
While Affleck and Mara are not really given names in the film (just “M” and “C” in the credits), they convey a complex marriage in very few scenes. At stake in their lives is a recent decision to move from their rented home, which has a history and character that Affleck likes, to somewhere new. As fate would have it, Affleck is killed just outside their home in a car crash. After Mara identifies his body at the morgue, Affleck rises off the table with the sheet that covered his corpse and makes his way home. For the rest of the film, he will be fixture in the home moving in and out of the lives of its occupants for a long period of time, long after Mara moves on.
A Ghost Story is a must-see film for 2017 that will haunt you long after you first view it. It won’t be an easy journey, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
Lowery, trades in the wide-angled shots of Pete’s Dragon for a smaller ratio (4:3, or 1:33:1) for A Ghost Story. This 4:3 ratio was the preferred aspect ratio for silent films and for television in the early days of the medium. Given today’s larger ratio’s meant to distinguish the cinema experience from that of television, and that is used to create spectacle, the use of the old ratio can be a bit jarring, but extremely effective.
A Ghost Story plays much like a silent film in some aspects. Long, single camera angles are used to create an overly intimate feel that might induce a feeling of apprehension and dread by the viewer that they are witnessing moments that feel too private for our intrusion. Couple this with the aspect ratio that feels like an old family slideshow in the vastness of the latest cineplex where the screen the film is projected onto engulfs the actual surface area of the frame being projected, and you will feel very much that you are watching something real, personal, raw, and intimate. You will want to look away, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen either. There is also not much dialogue, which also echoes the silent film era.
Mara’s much discussed scene, where she eats a pie, lingers uncomfortably long, but portrays an honest reaction to grief that most films don’t create enough space for. Mara’s part in this film is both understated and powerful as she is able to visual demonstrate the whole gambit of emotions that come out as one deals with grief in an honest way, never shortchanging the experience with camera cut-aways and other tricks filmmakers use when they want to make a point and simply move on. We don’t just “move-on” and neither does Lowery’s camera as it observes the ghost observing the life that moves forward without him.
As Mara calmly begins eating the pie, Affleck, under the sheet, stands in the frame watching her. As Lowery lets the camera fixate on Mara, Affleck fades into the background, yet his presence is felt. You could easily move your gaze to a different part of the frame and see him, but you begin to focus on Mara, and her subtly escalating experience, so much so that Affleck’s ghostly presence ceases to be sinister or creepy as he stands there, and instead the ghost becomes a part of the very character of the house he so loved when he was living.
Lowery uses the film to deal with not only loss, but the passing of time and the impact of legacy. Time does not always work in a linear fashion in this film, and Lowery uses it to great effect to create the emotions he means to convey through his film. Surprisingly, Affleck is able to convey a myriad of emotions under that sheet as he either stands still as an observer, or methodically floats (walks) through various scenes with the confidence of an unrealized purpose and conviction, but he is never in a rush. All he has is time.
Those seeking a conventional film and maybe even a sort-of tragic love story, in a traditional sense, may be disappointed by A Ghost Story. This will not be a fault of the film, but of those viewers who are just not having their expectations met. Whether that is based on seeing something different from what they thought they saw in the trailer, or maybe a contrasting experience from what they expect from seeing a film in a theater. For everyone else, A Ghost Story will prove that it is a complex, rewarding, and beautiful story of the significance of a life lived in view of the eternal.
Patient observation is the key to seeing the rich tapestry that lies beneath the mundane and ordinary events of life. As time changes and our film’s ghost continues to wait and observe, we see the transcendent nature of progress, and the helpless notion that we are just a blip on the radar of eternity. Yet, it also conveys the simple truth that we are all connected through our shared unchanging human nature. This story demonstrates that this unchanging human nature reveals that despite our different lives, stories, and experiences, we are all still trying to find our meaning and purpose, eager to leave something of significance behind, in the short time that we live our lives.
In short, we long for a legacy that matches our hopes and ideals that will last long after our time is through, though often we doubt that our lives are ever making such an impact. Lowery reminds us that as insignificant as it all seems against the vastness of time, space, and the bigger questions of God, meaning, and the eternal, the daily things we do actually matter. The eternal nature of time, and even our essence, or spirit, is given context in the everyday matters of life. From a pie we eat that embodies every emotion of grief we feel, to the things we deem important enough to argue about that are truly trivial in the grand scheme of things…it all has significance….if for no one else, but you.
A Ghost Story is a must-see film for 2017 that will haunt you long after you first view it. It won’t be an easy journey, but nothing worthwhile ever is. It is a rewarding one, however, and a reminder that David Lowery hasn’t forgotten that much can be said even in the smallest of films and budgets, even as he is finding success with bigger projects. This secret film of his, which was done on a shoestring budget, is the film that should define him, long after his hopefully storied career in cinema is over.