A Ghost Story (2017) (Review)

A Ghost Story is like no other film that springs to memory. In the opening act, it delivers a scene that should bore you to tears: our female lead, fresh from a devastating loss that has left her feeling hallow, devours an entire pie over an uninterrupted five minute-plus scene. Just her, just a pie, with a man draped in a white cloth in the background, out of focus, but present nonetheless. The sequence is literally of her eating a pie and you literally sit there hypnotised the entire time. Most of A Ghost Story is like that actually; long, uninterrupted one-shot pieces, slow-burning scenes with little-to-no action or dialogue and rarely a glimpse of real human faces.

It is near impossible to discuss A Ghost Story in a coherent manner. It has left me grasping for words, desperate to place my admiration and respect for the micro-budget picture on paper but greatly failing. More a stream of thoughts and points than a well-formed review (one cautious of spoiling anything for audiences who must approach with an open-mind and willingness), you must bear with me as I try and frame A Ghost Story in an appropriately glowing manner. Of the synopsis, I will simply say the story is a balance of life and death, a cosmic blend of love and loss and wordiness, framed in the most poignant, touching and powerful way. Written and directed in the middle of summer last year by David Lowery, eager to escape the pressures of a major studio blockbuster release, the project is one of care and compassion, with the lead talents - Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara - reportedly working for nothing (or very, very little).

A Ghost Story is a film of great stillness, an endurance test of sorts, operating as a mediative reflection on monumental questions, themes and ideas. With more complex notions contained within its first half an hour than most other films would even dream of considering across an entire feature-length, it ponders and it contemplates and then it wonders a little more, careful to provide enough to intoxicate audiences with in the process. Enthralling audiences through its exploration of humanity and reaction, it coalesces into something far grander as the film progresses and its reach far surpasses the moment the credits roll. A Ghost Story is a film that will stay with you for days, weeks and months.

 It is clear that what A Ghost Story lacks in budget, special effects and scale, it makes up for (in ample measure) in scope, ambition and innovation. All told, creativity and simplicity is key to its success. A white sheet becomes so much more than your homemade, rudimental and perfunctory Halloween costume, adopting a whole new meaning and method of exploring almost unassailable ideologies, with Lowery's self-funded project utilising its idiosyncrasies with a deftness and significance. The cotton threads act almost as a barrier between the land of the living and the dead, a restriction of lovers and as a prevention of reality - much like the idea of time in the film, the sheet becomes a whole new character in and of itself.

If you haven't picked up on it yet, A Ghost Story oozes elegance. Lowery's script is riddled with smartness and sophistication: his writing provides food for thought on a constant basis, reflected in the authenticity and emotional power of its execution. Who else could mix time and existential questions so profoundly, varnished with an indisputable grace? Admittedly, it teeters towards narcissism on infrequent occasions but is otherwise anchored by a tremendously subdued script predominantly absent of dialogue and/or human characters.

Lowery not only excels with the script but behind the camera too, directing the piece in a purposefully controlled manner. He keeps the camera slightly to the right or left of the subject, as if he is afraid to centralise anything; for A Ghost Story, it is truly efficient film-making, conjuring that uneasy atmosphere crucial to the film's success. It is masterful in fact, with the atmosphere and general tone performing most of the heavy-lifting: thematic content along these lines would most likely crumble in less capable, ambitious hands - but Lowery, evoking that perfect, evocative atmosphere through that skilled direction, demonstrates his talent and control as a director. It helps further that the picture is downright stunning, gorgeously shot and as visually compelling as it is thematically. An aesthetic marvel, its beauty hasn't been paralleled this summer at the pictures.

How many others would be so bold with their film-making? Not only is A Ghost Story (partly) self-funded (illustrating the financial commitment to the project), but some of the artistic choices are valiant. The now famous 'pie' scene immediately springs to mind as the 5-10 minute take remains largely uninterrupted, but a number of other examples of unconventional storytelling spliced throughout the film. To avoid spoiling it for anyone, I'll call silence on any other scene but explicitly say a handful of them exist, with Lowery creativity understanding no bounds. Everything is contained within a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, providing audience with the feeling of entrapment and emphasising the notion of eternity, as if we too are trapped under a metaphorical sheet that appears to tighten around us as we progress and fall deeper into the weighty thematics.

Lowery is not the only major player in A Ghost Story, with Affleck and Mara attached with an obvious care for the project. Affleck may be hidden under a white sheet for the majority of the film but there remains something fundamentally human about his performance; the way he holds himself, the way he moves is excruciatingly considered, even in his spiritual, ethereal form. Melancholy hangs around him and Affleck, with so little to work with and obviously channeling his infamous natural characteristics and turn in Manchester By The Sea, provides a startling performance in the face of it all. 

Similarly, Rooney Mara delivers a nuanced performance of heartbreak and devastation, with the emotionally gruelling sequences conveyed expertly by Mara, one of her generation's greatest performers. In that pie scene, she makes you feel as if you are the only person in the room, prying on her grief-stricken aftermath with a torturing turn that captures so much emotion with very little substance. It is almost like you are a ghost in her home during the rawest moment of her life. Largely thanks to Mara's fragility in these moments, A Ghost Story is easily one of the most crushing, devastating films I have ever seen.

Already on vinyl pre-order, Daniel Hart's soundtrack is easily one of the greatest examples of sonic impact this year. Haunting, serene and very often mesmerising, the collection of tracks are near faultless in enhancing the atmosphere and emotion of the piece, anchoring an often time-expansive and wondering piece to something intrinsically human to be emotionally affected by. Like Jackie, Arrival and Moonlight, A Ghost Story's score feels individual to itself, like nothing heard before, in the rare instance of being completely recognisable to the film Lowery curates. Its electronic, gentle and stirring, very often in the same key, illustrating Hart's true understanding of Lowery's vision with a score that helps bring to life a complex, advanced idea with ease and clarity.

A Ghost Story asks for patience, and if you deliver on your half of the promise, you will be rewarded with a piece of tremendous, passionate film-making and a deft exploration of love and loss and life and time. I left A Ghost Story with questions - too many to list here - but that is part of its power and its appeal: it stays with you, unapologetically, worming its way into your subconscious. It may sound dramatic but I left A Ghost Story thinking 'I'll never live this life the same again'; very possibly, I will - but the power and profundity in the hours, days (and probably) months that follow your first watch of Lowery's feature-length are unlikely any other film I've witnessed or experienced before. Enthralling as themes of humanity and reaction are uncovered in an unrelenting and hypnotising manner, A Ghost Story is one for the ages - it will defy time.


 Summary: A Ghost Story is a mesmerising feature-length and a hypnotising exploration of love, loss, life, time and humanity. Visually spellbinding and thematically profound, David Lowery's direction is elegant and sophisticated, heighten by two terrific performances and Daniel Hart's extraordinary score. One of the films of the year.