A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Director David Lowery’s haunting A Ghost Story gives us the spirit life from the perspective of the phantom. Time has no meaning when you’re dead, however, and so the narrative proceeds in fits and starts. Some scenes are long and almost continuous with what has come before, while others are short and flit by in a disjointed jumble, eliding years into a single montage of presence that has no anchor in the here and now. It’s a brilliant evocation of the fragility of the human construct, and a poignant portrait of the longing that remains even after we cease to exist. Unfortunately, despite the film’s moving aesthetic and strong central performances, the script is not always up to the challenge of supporting the powerful premise.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who appeared together in Lowery’s 2013 Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, play lovers living in a ramshackle house in a small community in Texas. They’re planning on moving away, though Affleck seems reluctant. Noises in the house wake them up at night, and Lowery leaves us with the impression that some spectral presence haunts the house (it is called “A Ghost Story” after all). But then suddenly, quietly (which is how the action always proceeds here), we cut one morning to the exterior of the house and witness the aftermath of a car accident, where one of the lovers sits in the driver’s seat of a vehicle, dead of a smashed head. After a brief stint in the hospital, where we identify the body, that body sits up, now covered in a white sheet. No one else can see the ghost, however, and so it slowly glides its invisible way through the halls, pausing for a brief moment as a white doorway opens in one of the walls (presumably to the after life), before – ignoring that easy way out – continuing to the home it shared with the other lover. And there it will remain.
About that white sheet. It’s an initial obstacle, since it’s so visually humorous, looking as it does like a poorly conceived Halloween costume. Still, over the course of the film, it serves its purpose, gradually erasing our memory of the initial human from which it came, the dark eyeholes acting as receptacles for the emotions we project onto the ghost. And so the years pass, with different people occupying the house, as we catch but tiny glimpses – little pockets of time – of the events that no longer hold importance for the ghost. Through the window, it sees another ghost in another house. They wave to each other. Unfortunately, Lowery undercuts the potential sweetness of their interaction with unnecessary subtitles, again skirting a little too close to the comic.
Eventually, the mystery of what drives the ghost forward will be solved, to some degree, and within that resolution lies an important key to the meaning of all life. It’s too bad that many of the moments on which we pause, along the way, seem only half-considered, as if the premise were enough for Lowery, without needing to flesh out the bones of the larger narrative. And yet the slow aesthetic mesmerizes. At one point, we watch a character eat a pie, as an act of mourning, and we hold on the shot for what feels like an eternity. Would that the other pauses were as layered in meaning.
Lowery shoots the film in 4:3 aspect ratio (the square look of your TV before our widescreen age), with rounded vignettes on the corners of the frame. According to his press notes, it’s because he wanted to avoid the complacency of the familiar, and also hoped to emphasize the long frame of the ghost through the more vertical composition. Interesting idea, but that choice neither helps nor hurts the story, and I would warrant that most viewers will tune out the difference within the first 5 minutes. But it does show that his is a questing mind, and even if I found the script, itself, lacking, there is genuine power in the mise-en-scène, and strong visuals that remain with me days after watching the film. Now that’s a kind of haunting I embrace with all my heart.