‘A Ghost Story’ does not scare, but it deeply haunts
Written and directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara
“A Ghost Story” – “Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.” – Hans Christian Anderson
Although writer/director David Lowery’s new film contains one arguably scary moment – in which several dishes fly around an ordinary kitchen – ironically, “A Ghost Story” is not a horror film. Not at all. Instead, it best resembles a 1-hour 32-minute lesson: to embrace, savor and enjoy the time that we have on this planet…while we are alive. Heaven forbid if one carries significant, unfinished business at the time of death, because the results could be a painful existence for this individual, who will linger around the grounds in which he or she walked upon during life.
This picture walks around the grounds of an aging, three-bedroom ranch, sitting on - probably - an acre of land along a rural route. A close, 30-something couple – played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara - rent this particular residence, and it is haunted by a ghost. A ghost with unfinished business while it was a living, breathing human being, and now, it is led by a compulsion to seek earthly answers while desperately looking towards the past.
Affleck and Mara have a filmography-past with Lowery, as they starred in his richly-textured, moody Texas crime drama, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013). Although the plots of the two films are vastly different, they both encapsulate a profound theme of grief. Additionally, Lowery applies his style of leaving a camera in quiet places, opening its lens and capturing everyday moments for long stretches. Actually, in “A Ghost Story”, one particularly fascinating scene offers a prime example of this technique on steroids, as a character eats an impromptu meal over an agonizingly long stretch of three or four movie time minutes.
In addition to grief, time becomes the second key element in this afterlife concoction, and the movie routinely surprises in small and grand ways. In our world, time always moves forward and at the same pace, but in “A Ghost Story”, these rules do not always apply, as the film challenges the audience to view existence from an apparition’s perspective. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011) is the closest comparison film in terms of tone, mood and narrative construction to this picture, and that is an eccentric compliment. On the other hand, Malick’s 2011 film is very polarizing. Talk to any two people who finished watching “The Tree of Life”, and more often than not, one person embraced the picture, while the other felt very frustrated by it.
The same sentiment will probably hold for “A Ghost Story”, but this particular critic thinks highly of this thoughtful, striking and organically-driven picture. Trudging through raw emotions and introducing unorthodox suggestions of time and space, Lowery’s film succeeds in tapping into basic human sentiments and also profound theories of metaphysics. All of it centers around the experience of one ghost. A ghost designed with the simplest cinematic effect that one could possibly construct: a plain, white sheet with two eyeholes cut at its top.
Through two dark, eye-shaped circles - from a figure dressed in an everyday sheet - Lowery delivers a sobering, powerful experience. An experience that will certainly divide its audience, but whether the picture works for you or it does not, it will absolutely leave a mark. In that respect, “A Ghost Story” may not be scary, but it will deeply haunt.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.