Independent films are often too smart for their own good. They walk a fine line between artistically brilliant and abhorrently self-indulgent. Free from the shackles of a big studio production, the directors of these films are free to explore new themes and bigger ideas with full creative control. This can allow for the realization of true cinematic genius. Other times they completely miss the mark. David Lowery, coming fresh off of directing Pete’s Dragon, has achieved something truly remarkable with his indie passion project A Ghost Story.
A film that reflects upon the ideas of life, loss, love, and the meaning of existence all through the childlike image of a recently deceased ghost returning to observe his grieving wife.
There is a certain conation that comes with the title “A Ghost Story.” Ghost stories are told to elicit a fright as friends sit around the campfire. With a title like that, there is an expectation for a certain degree of horror. This film is not a horror film, and it’s better for it. Lowery brings to life an entirely new kind of ghost in the form of the childlike image of a sheet draped over a person. The figure drifts about each frame drenched with melancholy over the isolation in the afterlife. This lonely spirit undermines all the tropes associated with the idea of a ghost and allows for a new type of story to take form.
The plot of A Ghost Story is as minimal as a film can get and still be coherent. The film starts off with Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea) and Rooney Mara (Lion), a couple living in a small suburban house, preparing to move. The plot is so minimal the characters are not given names, only the credits state their names as C (Affleck) and M (Mara). Mara states that every time she moves out of a home, she leaves a little piece of herself in a note somewhere within the house. Shortly after, C dies in a car crash right outside the home. His soul reappears in the film as the familiar sheet with two holes for eyes. He returns back to his former home to watch M move on with her life, unable to make any form of contact to comfort her in this trying hour. When she eventually decides to move, she writes her note and slips it between a crack in the doorframe before painting over it. The ghost of C then remains in the empty house with the sole purpose of finding out what message M left behind.
Lowery explores the fascinating idea of what beckons a lost soul to haunt a former residence in the world of the living. An audience expectation for ghosts is for them to terrorize whoever inhabits their former dwelling, in some sort of territorial defense. The film follows C as he lingers in his home watching new residents pass throughout the years.
One of the more brilliant aspects of this film is the usage of time. Towards the beginning of the plot when the focus is on the relationship between C and M, there are long intimate shots of the two actors. One in particular is of a bird’s eye view of the couple in bed, nuzzling noses and kissing before falling asleep. The use of a long take in a moment like this feels true to life, as if time itself stops in the passionate embrace of a significant other. There is another shot like this after C’s passing that’s gained some controversy. To avoid spoilers, all that needs to be said about this shot is that it adds to the vulnerable and delicate nature of the film.
Time takes a different feel once the ghost appears in the movie. Time is experienced linearly by the living, so it stands to reason that time is irrelevant to ghosts. How Lowery achieves this idea is what gives the movie its brilliance. As the specter slowly drifts around the house, years pass by through the duration of a single shot. The ghost floats from one frame to the next and the landscape has completely changed from the effects of time. All these different periods are linked by C’s experience as a ghost and his longing to have some lasting impact in the world he left behind. The crippling loneliness he experiences is revealed in a discussion during a party about the futility of mankind in the face of the destruction of the universe. Even thought the film has a run time of only 92 minutes, the manipulation of time both draws this movie out and accelerates it to a rapid pace.
A Ghost Story is prime example of less is more. There’s not much in the way of dialogue or action. This movie is getting released during the time of big action blockbusters filled with huge set pieces and explosions. This is a film that shows the wreck instead of the crash, or foregoes showing the fights between a couple to show the distance between them afterward. Aware of the outcome, audiences fill in the spaces to decide for themselves what happened and what this means for the story. It brings an emotional weight only achievable through unorthodox filmmaking such as this. A Ghost Story is a master class on emotional storytelling.
Ultimately this film is a slow burn. It’s a film that will sit with you for days after you watch it. The story haunts you, draws upon your own life experiences to inform the story while simultaneously redefining its own plot. This is not a film for everyone, and it will become apparent in the first minutes whether it’s worth sticking around. This is a brilliant and unconventional film that will define the movie scene of 2017. Whether it’s in a theater or on a home release, A Ghost Story is a film that must be seen.
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