Film Review: A Ghost StoryFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 7 Aug 2017

The title ‘A Ghost Story’ might put you in mind of any of the myriad haunted house films that have spooked cinema throughout its history, but David Lowery’s low-key drama is one of the few in which the protagonist himself is definitively a ghost.

Casey Affleck plays that protagonist, who in an early scene is killed in an accident and from that moment on appears only as figure draped in a huge white sheet, with nothing more than a pair of pitch black eye sockets (and later some dirt and scuffing) for detail. After his death he stands vigil in his old house, watching his bereaved partner (Rooney Mara) struggle on with her life.

This is a melancholy meditation on death, clearly designed to inspire an emotional reaction, but without the cynicism that often hampers projects with that intention. Lowery’s film feels tender and honest, and while the score is relied upon to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of emotional delivery, it doesn’t feel manipulative. There are few characters in A Ghost Story, none of whom are named, and very little dialogue – indeed, for long stretches it plays like a silent film. Daniel Hall (who scored Lowery’s previous two films, Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) conjures up a dreamy, emotionally rich sonic environment that blends well with Lowery’s very mannered, restrained direction.

Lowery and his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shot the film in the 1:33 ratio with unusual rounded edges – an intimate form closer to a square than most modern films – which gives the visuals a close-in feeling. The film routinely features shots that move into or out of a resting position that looks straight at the environment, framing the scene almost as if it were flat, accentuating intentional symmetries and quirks in the set design. This aesthetic brings out the fundamental weirdness of the ghost’s presence, offset as it often is against very ordered surroundings, and also lends a sense of loss when that order is fractured. There’s a simple but wonderful inversion of this aesthetic when a character drives away from the house.

All of this gives the impression that Lowery has really considered how to tell his story visually and sonically, leaving dialogue mostly in the background. In fact the most verbose scene in the film, set during a house party, is clearly the film’s weakest – an unnecessary addition that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

The design of the ghost is wonderful. He comes across as tremendously expressive even though he has almost no moving features (indeed, in some scenes, he doesn’t move at all), capable of looking both angry and threatening, although he primarily conveys a sense of profound longing. Again, the staging of the shots and the score play a big part in making the character work. There’s even a strange undercurrent of dark humour in his low-budget, Halloween-costume appearance.

Not every element of the film works – the second half isn’t as well paced, and features a central plot point that isn’t wholly satisfactory – but in general, A Ghost Story works on the level it is aiming for: emotional depth. I was moved by the picture and felt it had things to say about loss and death. Two scenes involving Rooney Mara’s character will certainly stick with me: in one, she listens to headphones in two time periods, and the simple movement of an arm had me unable to hold back the tears; and a protracted scene in which the consumption of a pie becomes a tough and emotionally draining ordeal.

4/5

The film won’t be for everyone, but it’s a unique take on the ubiquitous cinematic theme of death and what happens after it, and deserves to be seen.

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