A Ghost Story

| July 14, 2017

David Lowery’s 2013 feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints earned its fair share of comparisons to Terrence Malick, and Disney’s choice to have Lowery helm the Pete’s Dragon remake seemed odd on the surface. It seemed even more strange given Lowery’s other film work as an editor on Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (2012), Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), and as editor and cinematographer on Kris Swanberg’s Empire Builder (2014), all even less “mainstream” than Lowery’s own 2013 breakout film. Pete’s Dragon was warmly received by critics for its soulful and grounded take on its fantastical story, but as well-regarded as Lowery’s previous two directorial efforts were, they could hardly have prepared audiences for his latest film. A Ghost Story is an astonishingly assured and inventive film that hangs on one audacious key directorial choice that pays off in ways that are difficult to imagine even from watching the film’s trailer. The Malick comparisons may still pop up, but this film shows Lowery striking off into territory very much his own.

A married couple is preparing to move out of their home. The husband (Casey Affleck) is reluctant to leave, and his wife (Rooney Mara) doesn’t really understand why. Shortly before the move, the husband is killed in a car accident. In the hospital after the wife sees his body for the last time, he gets up, now a mute ghost that resembles a child’s drawing of one: a long, white sheet with two black eyeholes. The ghost makes its way back to the house and observes the wife as she grieves and continues to pack up the house for an eventual move. It has a passing relationship with another ghost in the house next door, the only other entity with whom it can directly communicate. As time accelerates, the ghost remains tied to the place where the house was, unable to move on but processing the loss of its life and love on a timeline that spans centuries into the future and the past.

At its heart A Ghost Story is a very simple, straightforward story about loss, grief, and acceptance. It happens to be such a story in which the central character is a ghost for whom time works much differently for those around it. Presenting the character as a childlike conception of a “ghost” was a dangerous gamble, but one that is undeniably inspired and whose execution is as powerful as it is simple. Removing most of the component parts of a character performance–facial expressions, tone and inflection of dialogue, all but the most basic physical gestures–makes the ghost identifiable to any viewer. It doesn’t matter that the ghost is the spirit of a man, just as it doesn’t matter that the audience never knows who the spirit in the neighboring house was before it was a similarly sheeted entity. Anyone who has experienced significant loss can understand what the ghosts are going through even if we can’t see their face or hear their voice.

In addition to the almost primal emotions evoked by the ghost’s appearance, Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shot the film in the boxy 1.33:1 “Academy ratio” with rounded edges recalling old photographs or slides. This adds another almost subconscious invocation of nostalgia as well as provides a visual echo of the constricted space in which the action of the film takes place. Similarly, the opening act consists largely of lengthy single takes lingering on individual moments in the lives of the living characters. The structure of the film mimics the perception of its main character’s perception of time, as well as that of anyone over a certain age–as the story progresses, time passes more and more quickly. Moments of lesser significance disappear as stretches of time make up less of one’s life in total. Stretch that concept out to centuries and decades can pass between cuts. Every choice feeds into the concepts at the center of the film, giving A Ghost Story not just an undeniable emotional power but a dazzling technical virtuosity.

Lowery’s move from meditative drama to “children’s” fantasy with Pete’s Dragon was something of a part of the recent trend of major studios taking big gambles on “indie” directors such as Colin Trevorrow (who jumped from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World) and Jordan Vogt-Roberts (director of The Kings of Summer and Kong: Skull Island). Trevorrow followed up Jurassic World with the staggeringly misguided and bizarre The Book of Henry before he moves on to Star Wars: Episode IX. It’s difficult not to be excited about the idea of where Lowery might go from here if he is able to make a similar directorial career alternating major studio pictures with smaller projects that allow him more autonomy. After A Ghost Story, it’s clear Lowery is a hugely talented filmmaker with a truly unique vision. Put simply, this is destined to be one of the absolute best films of the year.

A Ghost Story opens in Chicago 14 July 2017, and expands 24 July 2017.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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