Ghosts might belong to horrors, but the symbolism of the past and human legacy works so much better than cheap scares when it’s in good hands. A Ghost Story will wash all the sardonic, sarcastic responses so common in a modern hedonist society out of your head for the running time of the film – and Lowery’s big questions which have never had definitive answers shape the perspective of one lonely soul in a white cape.
Dressing Casey Affleck up in a stylised bedsheet sounds like a conceptual experiment or a raging joke against the horrors and thrillers that normally demonise the spiritual presences without questioning their motives much. But don’t let the ghost distract you. We go from initial amusement to sobbing in milliseconds: the tale of the creator of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon stops you for a moment to present its own fascination with love, time and death. And I’ll dare to state the obvious: everyone knows it’s complicated; however, it’s not easy for many to ditch the sardonic, cynical attitudes to these thoughts. And Lowery takes these judgements and doubts to come up with a heartache wrapped in the bedsheets, a painful but eye-opening, delightful philosophical thesis in a traditional Academy form.
David Lowery’s fourth film brings out the utmost fascination with time and our relationship to it. He picks up on so many broad themes that many philosophers would be scared to tackle, but he wins because he makes the story so personal and filled with emotions which anyone can relate to. He’s not afraid of putting the moment of a quiet reflection in the ordinary moments, and expose it cinematically to elicit the whole spectrum of feelings.
Although the story is a show-stealer, it wouldn’t be possible to the performances which are expertly used to dip into the flow of time: Rooney Mara gives her best performance in a while, and Casey Affleck takes a test to act only with pantomime. In a Q&A session, Lowery confirmed that even a person’s walking manner is more distinctive under the cover of shapeless piece of fabric, so he was challenged to pay closer attention to the detail. From the audience’s perspective, it is impeccable.
If you think someone eating a pie for a couple of minutes wouldn’t be able to make you feel much, I’d like you to think again. When the camera focuses on Rooney Mara sliding down to the floor and eating a dish made by a neighbour, sobbing and distraught, the tension grows immensely – it’s at the peak of depression, emptiness and helplessness that losing a loved one can bring you. Another heartbreak is inevitable when C speaks to another lost ghost he spots in the window of the house nearby: when he asks her who she’s waiting for, she answers, “I can’t remember anymore”. And he takes his musings to the pinnacles in the monologue at the party, when one of the guests tries to prove that every single one of us wants to leave something memorable as their legacy – whatever it might be. The story tries to find meaning in everyday things we do, repeatedly asks what the meaning of life is, and transcends the boundaries of time and space to expose the fragility of human existence. Inevitably, it reminds of the recent Personal Shopper – but is preoccupied with the big questions behind the meaning of life so much more.
There isn’t much dialogue in the film, but the sound design and music play a particularly important role in it. The silence and dramatic soundtrack in the background emphasise the feelings of despair and frustration. And there’s that one song that’s so crucial to the storytelling: M listens to it after her husband is gone, and his composition reminds her of the times they spent together; it’s the epitome of the pain, but also pure essence of someone else’s presence, a little thing they’ve left for us to remember them. The film has been shot in Academy ratio, quite unusual today, which forces us to look at this world through a very particular frame – which is also a visual delight in terms of composition that feels so much more intimate, starting with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck wandering in the dark at the beginning of the film. The colour changes are responsible for shifting our emotions, too – from the blues and yellows of the prairie, the bright lights to the city, to the warm lights and shadows of the couple’s house.
Every blockbuster summer has its top-notch indie film – and A Ghost Story is this summer’s reflective, melancholic show-stealer. Exploring the existential questions that everyone faces at some point of their lifetimes, Lowery makes the story more intimate by narrowing the perspective down to one person’s contemplations and embracing the metaphors with the visual design of the film.
A Ghost Story opens in the UK on the 11th of August 2011.