Published on July 23rd, 2017 | by Dan Nicholls0
A Ghost Story
Nevermind the capes and cowls — one of the year’s best films is a quiet meditation on grief, with Casey Affleck wearing only a sheet.
In a season filled with capes and franchises galore it perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising that one of the most genuinely affecting films this summer is also one of its quietest. A Ghost Story, the new film from acclaimed writer-director David Lowery, is the type of gem worth digging to find. It could be just quickly written off as “Casey Affleck wearing a sheet and Rooney Mara eating pie” but it is so much more than that. A Ghost Story is one of the most striking meditations on grief and human mortality ever. It’s unquestionably one of 2017’s greatest films.
This isn’t a film you can bound to a box, even if it is presented in a square aspect ratio with rounded corners. The framing is an essential aesthetic to the film. The old-timey feel conveyed by a 4:3 image makes every shot look like a photograph out of an album lost for decades. The pictures within its borders, like the specter at the heart of the film, repeat on a timeless loop, chained to their place in time. By slowing down and allowing the pictures to simply be the filmmakers deliver a gift that is going to be remembered for a long, long while. A Ghost Story could conceivably inspire a new generation of independent filmmakers to pick up a camera.
The uninitiated should go in knowing that A Ghost Story is more Malick than The Conjuring. Scares are nonexistent but sentimentality is maintained in what is ultimately a study of two things mankind can not wrangle to fit its whim: death and the passage of time.
A young married couple, unnamed in the film and listed only as “C” and “M” in the credits, are pulled apart when C (Casey Affleck) dies in a car accident. His widow (Rooney Mara) identifies C’s body in a morgue, and mere moments later he abruptly sits up. C then wanders back to their home, where he observes M’s grieving process as a silent, heartbroken witness.
C is a mute spectator draped in a plain white sheet, that is, with big oval-shaped black eyes that visualize him as nothing more than the most basic of basic child’s Halloween costume. It’s a startling choice and an exceptionally bold one. Director David Lowery swears it is Casey Affleck himself under the sheet. Whether it is him or not, the intended effect instantly leaves an indelible impression. There probably has never been a protagonist who says so little, looks so unexceptional, and yet journeys so far.
Confined to the house he shared with M while he was living, C drifts through time searching for the answer that will allow him to pass in peace. With C as our guide we explore our creation, the inevitability of mortality, and the incomprehensible existential vastness of time. C can’t speak, save for a handful of subtitles exchanged between him and a similarly stuck spirit next door. He simply is left to exist and watch the years float by following the pain of seeing the one he loves move on with her life. It’s heartbreaking and yet acceptance is found for both C and the audience.
Making A Ghost Story even more exceptional in today’s day and age is the fact that it’s largely devoid of dialogue. Lowery has a keen eye that feeds directly into his heart, it would seem, and the writer-director proves himself a master of visual storytelling with this feature. A Ghost Story designates him as a talent to keep an eye on. Lowery’s sensitivity, patience, and humility are implanted in the film’s DNA. Supernatural concepts rarely feel so intensely personal but everything about Lowery’s filmmaking style helps make the intangible seem deep-rooted in honesty and sincerity.
A song called ‘I Get Overwhelmed,’ performed by Dark Rooms, is a hauntingly beautiful track that pops up as a story point in flashbacks of C and M in happier times. It’s as powerful a theme for a film since ‘Miss Misery’ in Good Will Hunting. The instrumental score by Daniel Hart is an equally important element in shaping A Ghost Story into a profoundly realized experience.
The year is still young and yet my soul has already discovered a new classic to revisit for many years to come. This is a movie you have to feel, and you and it are either going to get each other or you won’t. A Ghost Story absolutely will not satisfy everyone — it’s simply too ethereal and impressionistic to be universally adored by all audiences. But those who are struck by its artistic risks and unexpectedly moving rewards are going to feel its impact deeply. If you allow yourself to open up and let it in, A Ghost Story is as transcendent as modern filmmaking can be.