As the credits for David Lowery’s A Ghost Story started to roll, I turned over to my friend and said: “That is either the greatest movie I’ve ever seen or the worst movie I’ve ever seen”. Part of such a polarizing assessment stems from how in a mere 87 minutes, A Ghost Story manages to put everything and nothing into the film at the same time. Like a prizefighter overwhelmed by the shock of being knocked out, A Ghost Story stuns you in a way that in the immediate aftermath, it is difficult to process what just transpired but given some time to ponder and perhaps repeat viewings, there is a realization that this is one of the most original, compelling and thought-provoking films in recent memory.
A rudimentary view ofA Ghost Story is that it is an exploration of grief and moving on which is what we see when Casey Affleck (named just simply C) dies in an accident and is left watching his lover Rooney Mara’s M move on. Taking on an appearance, not unlike your last-minute Halloween costume (sheet and appropriately cut out eye slots in full effect), C becomes a ghost that lingers in the house he once resided watching as time passes by. On the surface, nothing really happens, we witness M wallow in her grief before gradually moving on, new tenants move into the residence including a Hispanic family followed a group of bohemian hipsters. Things change rapidly but two things remain: C’s ghostly presence and the continuous passage of time.
The lack of a concrete narrative structure will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers, this is not a traditional film in many respects and though it retains a love story element, what the film is really about is time. Time moves forward with disregard and in that time we witness these seemingly mundane events occurring like the painting of walls or family dinners. Through these observations, A Ghost Story posits an existential debate as to whether any of this – our lives as a whole – carries any meaning in the grand scheme of eternal time?
Employing a hyper minimalistic style that features little to no dialogue will surely alienate portions of the audience. A Ghost Story is a movie that rewards patience. There are segments of this film that linger for minutes at a time but these moments serve to accentuate the feeling of time. To truly grasp what it feels like to remain in solitary purgatory as Affleck’s ghost does for much of the film, you must first feel that sense of time. It is only through the experience of time that the conclusion offers the highest emotional returns because though time is infinite, the minor moments that the camera so lovingly lingers on are not. These moments are fleeting, lost within a perpetually advancing timeline.
The lingering effect that Lowery utilizes is accomplished through long takes and wonderful camera movement relying on pans and tracking shots rather than editing. Within its carefully constructed 4:3 aspect ratio frame lies superb cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo that has a distancing effect – like we are examining these lives through a constrained lens that traps us (much like the Ghost) to a specific portion of these people’s lives.
It is a testament to the film’s subtle brilliance that it can even draw a response from the audience given the simplistic approach it uses. Affleck spends much of the runtime underneath a sheet with the only available forms of expression being minor head nods and a limited range of motion. Mara in her limited time on screen is also able to emote with little at her disposal projecting her feelings with just a glance. Neither performance will garner accolades simply because it will be overshadowed by more expressive roles but what they accomplish here should not be overlooked. Aided by Daniel Hart’s score and the mixing of ambient sounds, this is one of the quietest films of the year though it will leave as large an impression (if not larger) than even the loudest, most flamboyant films.
Many critics and supporters alike will point to a lengthy speech made midway through the movie where a party goer (Will Oldham) expresses nihilistic views on human existence as the movie’s central thesis. He suggests that over time, even the greatest visionaries will be forgotten, be it, Beethoven, Walt Disney or otherwise, that no one human’s legacy will withstand the test of time. It is a view that Lowery seems to promote as the film progresses but behind the obvious surface interpretation lies a deeper (more optimistic) view as well.
While it’s true that in the macro sense (every individual is but a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things) the significance of our lives cannot be understated. Though our legacies may not resonate beyond a small subsection in the vastness of history, they do carry far further than our physical lifespan and in ways, we are entirely unaware of.
In a society where “Ghosting” (the act of suddenly disappearing on a person after a period of continuous contact)and the need for instant gratification is prevalent, a film like A Ghost Story holds relevance. It places emphasis on the minuscule moments that we take for granted like sleeping (and waking up) next to the one you love or the celebration of holidays with your family. It reminds us of the permanence of time amidst these fleeting seemingly insignificant moments.
Reminding us that while many of us have “ghosts” in our lives (or may have even “ghosted” others) the imprints left by these people remain. You can delete all physical traces of someone from your life, move on physically and emotionally but every time that song comes on or every time you pass that spot where that memory occurred, there is a trigger (however brief) that reminds us of that person. Like Affleck’s ghost, our presence remains, our legacies forever tied to the lives of the people we have impacted – lasting far longer than our physical selves ever could.
Cinematic excellence is marked by a lot of things, technical achievements, immersive stories, meaningful connections and in many ways, A Ghost Story accomplishes these checkpoints in its own unique way but above all else this movie made me think. Polarizing as it might be, this is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. A haunting reminder of the fragility and beauty of life.
A Ghost Story is a thought-provoking, poignant look at love, loss and the permanence of time. No Pies were harmed in the writing of this review.