A Ghost Story is a film with rare lingering power that explores existence, loss and time in such a way that it spans themes and eons in its 90 minute runtime.
When C (Casey Affleck) dies, he returns to the home he shared with his wife M (Rooney Mara) as a ghost, wearing a sheet – Charlie Brown-style. At first, the sheet-covered C has a humorous, cartoonish feel, mostly due to its familiarity. With simplicity in Casey Affleck’s movements and the character’s total lack of verbalization, however, C becomes incredibly powerful on screen: beautifully re-appropriating a childhood image and creating something powerful, beautiful and melancholy as he haunts the house he once shared with his beloved wife.
C is forced to watch as his wife moves on and eventually moves away, and time begins to move faster as a series of new tenants come and go. C walks through months of time as he crosses through the rooms of his house, watching as the new residents redecorate and live in his home he now haunts.
Shot entirely in 1:33 aspect ratio, A Ghost Story is cinematic concentrate: the film fills only the center of the screen; square but slightly taller than it is wide with vignetted corners. The restrictive format mirrors C’s limitation to the house he now haunts as the smaller frame doesn’t give the audience anywhere to visually wander. So in much the same way C is trapped, so is the viewer’s attention. Director David Lowery wastes nothing, though, creating long-held, stunningly framed shots. While the imagery is uncomplicated, it is sophisticated and the space Lowery manages to fit into this restrictive format is incredible.
Lowery does have a tendency throughout the film to hold a single shot for an incredibly long time, allowing the audience to experience C’s existence in the same slow, ‘real-time’. Getting used to this takes some time itself: where movie-goers may be expecting a jump scare in a traditional ‘ghost story’ as they stare into a long-held shot, Lowery instead allows the audience to experience time alongside his characters.
In one instance, M comes home to the now empty house and in her grief, eats through most of a pie dropped off by her caring landlady. The whole scene plays out over about five minutes in a single take, with M sitting on her kitchen floor, eating the pie straight from a pan with a fork while C watches, standing in a corner of the living room, unmoving, out of focus. It feels strange at first as it continues over the minutes, but it develops into a powerful, gutting experience thanks to Rooney Mara’s performance (and commitment to eating pie until she gags).
The differing tenants provide C with some measure of time in his new, timeless existence. He grows angry watching a small family, perhaps as he is seeing things he will never have, and haunts them in a more traditional sense: breaking a glass and creeping out of a closet in a child’s room. A group of college-aged renters come next. Among them is an armchair philosopher who, over a beer at the dinner table during a party, spells out the film’s major themes (some already obvious, some still unfolding) which feels like it only serves to water down some of the achievements in the storytelling accomplished through the stunning visuals and interactions in the rest of the film.
Though some movie goers may not have the patience for a movie that trades jump scares and traditional haunted house tropes for thoughtful, restrained storytelling and timeline, those who welcome a delicate exploration on time, love, existence, and humankind’s longing for legacy will be rewarded with a thought-provoking film that, given its well developed themes, has the ability to haunt its viewers.
Rating: R (for brief language and a disturbing image)
Written and Directed by David Lowery
In Theaters: Jul 7, 2017 (limited)