After taking on a beloved Disney classic last year with ‘Pete's Dragon’, acclaimed independent filmmaker David Lowry appears to return to his roots with his latest film, ‘A Ghost Story’. With such a name, a small cast and a narrative built around a single location, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Lowry was stepping into the emerging indie horror genre that has started to produce unexpected classics in the past few years - but while his central figure may usually be associated with fear and horror, this particular ghost story has something entirely of its own to offer.
When C (Casey Affleck) dies in an accident, he returns to the home he shared with now widowed M (Rooney Mara) in the form of a white-sheeted ghost. She can’t see him and doesn't know he's there, but he refuses to leave, left to observe as she copes with the grief of losing him. The afterlife has no end date though, and as time and environment shift around him, C holds to this fixed point in space in search of an answer to their relationship.
Shot in a 1.33:1 ratio and with the illusion of 16mm film, ‘A Ghost Story’ begins as a fiercely intimate film, establishing the relationship between C and M with careful close-ups before tragedy occurs. When that moment comes though, it is quiet and understated, almost inconsequential against the mechanisms of the world around it. This careful consideration is the guiding principle of the film, though initially this is more of a hindrance than a positive. The first act stumbles quite a bit, neither character having the chemistry to keep you continually engaged. However, once the film begins to play with the cosmic, and the unexpectedly powerful image of C as a white sheet with two small eyes appears, the film finds its feet and quickly becomes something quite magical. Unfolding like a fable, complemented by now breathtaking images of C against the ever-changing backdrop of the house, Lowry’s ambition blossoms as the film contemplates the idea of life after death, the legacy we leave behind and the endurance of love. C becomes a symbol of loneliness and desperation, both Lowry and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo finding endless possibility for empathy in Annell Brodeur’s breathtakingly simple costume design. With very little dialogue and the 1.33:1 framing, it feels almost like a silent film, and you get the sense that Lowry is certainly drawing from the early silent pictures and spirit photography in his unique vision for the film.
What surprises though is its sudden ambition, the way it plays with concepts of time. C inhabits a fixed point in space, but with death no longer the culmination of his existence, time both becomes paramount and totally meaningless. From its very intimate beginning, ‘A Ghost Story’ careful moves bit-by-bit to the epic and the cosmic, answering bigger questions than you would expect an indie film to be able to tackle. While M can and must move on in order to survive, the singularity of C’s existence means he doesn’t have to, and the film explores the complications of this in many unexpected surprising ways. There’s a palpable sense of magic realism throughout the film, and Lowry pushes the boundaries of the expected at every turn with gentle bravado.
Not everything works though - neither Affleck nor Mara really stand out, though Mara tends to circumnavigate the expected emotional beats. There are also a few narrative clunks that fall into indie cinema cliché, like C being a electronic songwriter. This feels lazy and unnecessary, especially when we have to endure the banal song he composes in flashback, an obnoxious and whiny track that works completely against the gorgeous and beguiling score from Daniel Hart. It weirdly places C in a position of privilege that makes him harder to sympathise with, as weird as it sounds. It’s almost obnoxiously millennial, and really rubbed me up the wrong way for some inexplicable reason. The ending could also prompt some differences of opinion. It leaves a narrative question answered, and while I felt it was earned and quite a breathtaking choice to end the film on, it could also be seen as a cop-out by some.
From its very intimate beginning, ‘A Ghost Story’ careful moves bit-by-bit to the epic and the cosmic, answering bigger questions than you would expect an indie film to be able to tackle.
How you respond to much of ‘A Ghost Story’ depends on how well you accept its conceit and tone, but there certainly haven’t been many films this year as fascinating or as wonderfully mysterious as this one. While not everything works, David Lowry has crafted something pretty special: a quietly ambitious film that proves that big budgets and high concepts aren’t necessary for tackling the bigger questions of human existence. What stuck with me afterwards were the images, powerful portraits of loneliness and desperation, all captured within the silhouette of a figure under a sheet, motionless and forlorn, its dark eyes watching with longing as the universe moves rapidly around them, without them. It might be one of the most powerful images we see in a cinema this year.