500 Days Of Film Reviews A Ghost Story Starring Rooney Mara And Casey Affleck
Recently deceased and now a white-sheeted ghost, C (Casey Affleck) returns home to his grieving wife M (Rooney Mara) only to find that, in this spectral state, he has become unstuck in time. Watching passively as his life and the woman he loves slowly slip away, C desperately searches for the meaning of his existence.
Is It Any Good?
A Ghost Story is a film unlike any you will see in the cinema this year. Indeed, David Lowery’s moving and meditative story feels unlike anything I have ever seen. Even its aspect ratio (1:33 - a square frame softened with vignettes or rounded corners) signals that this is far from a traditional movie.
As a result, it is hard to place A Ghost Story within the confines of genre (part atmospheric drama, part cinematic installation art - with some effective horror tropes thrown in?) and difficult to compare it to other movies (although Terrence Malick comparisons have been made).
One thing is for sure, A Ghost Story will stay with me. This is a film that ponders the big questions of life, legacy and our quest for meaning and (impressively) does so with humility and humour. This is a film that provokes and challenges. This is a film that will (if you let it) get under your skin.
The best way to enjoy and appreciate A Ghost Story is to embrace its slow pace, stillness and its achingly long takes. These stylistic choices may well frustrate some audiences but those willing to go with Lowery’s vision will (eventually) find their patience rewarded.
For example, in one key scene we watch M eat a chocolate pie. Minutes go by as she ingests forkful after forkful. We know that she is not hungry but desperately trying to fill the void created by her overwhelming grief. Still the camera looks on, still the fork scrapes against the glass dish.
It is almost unbearable to watch. Indeed, it feels intrusive to observe such an intimate moment (a feeling that resonates throughout A Ghost Story). However, this simple yet devastating act tells us more about M’s unbearable loss than any wordy, emotional outburst.
Rooney Mara gives a hauntingly soulful performance. The camera lingers on her face and - whether eating pie or listening to music - she draws us in and allows us (and C) to consider the heartbreaking impermanence of life.
"I'm frequently terrified by how quickly the years fly by," Lowery explains. "This movie is a very explicit attempt to deal with time passing - it's going to move forward whether I like it or not."
It is incredible to consider that Affleck spends most of his time under a sheet with two holes cut out for eyes. What is even more incredible is how quickly we accept this fact and feel the deeper meaning behind this iconic image. On paper it sounds ridiculous - in A Ghost Story it works.
While we cannot see his face, we understand C's feelings of grief, guilt, desperation, anger and loss. He cannot move on from M and he cannot move away from his home. Indeed, the house in A Ghost Story is a central character in this story. This space is also haunted by history and the memories it holds.
Using this unprepossessing house, Lowery explores another thought-provoking notion: nothing (and no one) ever truly belongs to us - we just share this space as we pass through time. This idea is later expanded by the Prognosticator (Will Oldham) in a rather jarring, yet important scene that introduces the film's wider themes.
Suddenly, A Ghost Story is not just about C. It is about all of us - those living today, the people who have come before and those who will exist in the future. These are, of course, challenging subjects to broach. Crucially, Lowery treads lightly, avoiding pretension and
prioritising his story’s emotional truth.
As a result, the end of the film feels remarkably uplifting. Yes, our lives are infinitesimal in the larger metaphysical scheme of things. However, A Ghost Story finds meaning in death and hope in the wonderful, intimate moments of life.
Daniel Hart’s score is outstanding in this film. In a largely silent movie, the music feels so powerful. Lowery encouraged Hart to embrace the horror elements and also asked the composer to incorporate his brilliantly affecting pop song, I Get Overwhelmed, into the movie.
A Ghost Story’s aspect ratio is really interesting - it feels both contemporary and also nostalgic.
A Ghost Story was conceived in December 2015, following an argument between Lowery and his wife over whether the couple should move to Los Angeles (where commercial film-making jobs like Pete’s Dragon beckoned) or remain in Texas, a place that had inspired his earlier films St. Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (also starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck).
The film then developed to include the director’s preoccupation with time and ghosts. "I've wanted to tell a traditional ghost story for years," he remarks. "I love the classic iconography of the bed-sheet ghost - you can show this symbol to anyone around the world and they know instantly what it represents."
Affleck’s ghost costume was designed by Annell Brodeur. It was, of course, more than just a simple white sheet. The costume incorporated several layers of petticoats to create the shape and a helmet was used to keep the actor's face aligned with the eye-holes.
Have you seen A Ghost Story?
If you have, what did you think of David Lowery’s film? Let me know in the comments section below or let’s talk over on Twitter or Facebook (@500DaysOfFilm)