Movie Review: “A Ghost Story” may be the most daring film of 2017 so far.
Major Spoilers Ahead. Tread Carefully.
Typically after first indulging in a new film or T.V. show, I try to give myself at least a day or two before I start putting my thoughts down in writing. Unless we’re talking about something like “Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2” or “Transformers: The Last Knight” — movies that are mass-processed like fast food, and meant to be consumed as such — I like to allow some space for reflection when it comes to works of art that resist easy digestion. Recent triumphs like “Okja” and “The Beguiled” and even early-in-the-year jewels such as “Logan” and “The Lost City of Z” are not fast food products that you can shove down your gullet, with hopes of greasy, entirely temporary satisfaction. These are serious works of art that demand serious consideration. Sometimes it takes more than a day to figure all that out.
If I had my druthers, I would give myself at least a week or two before writing about David Lowery’s staggering new film, “A Ghost Story”. This is a quiet, unusually patient film: exquisitely observed down to its very marrow. It is a film you live with and meditate on. I am rushing to get the review out in the world, in hopes that it will spur on some minor degree of conversation over a film that I believe is very much worthy of serious discussion. And while I predict there won’t be a lot in the way of middle-ground response to Lowery’s defiantly atmospheric and hypnotically lovely third feature, I can say that instantaneous reactions to this film should be taken with a grain of salt. “A Ghost Story’ is something you have to experience on your own terms— preferably in a theater with terrific sound, and no pesky intrusions from cell phone-wielding assholes.
I mention time in relation to my initial reaction to “A Ghost Story,” mostly because Lowery’s film is explicitly about time. It is about how time defines our relationships, how it acts as a kind of bookend for cherished memories and, ultimately, how it keeps winding and winding on, utterly indifferent to our accomplishments, our desires, or our petty human miseries.
This may sound like an awfully heavy approach for a movie whose primary visual gimmick involves an imaginative child’s composite of what a ghost might look like — that is to say, a lurching apparition cloaked in white bedsheets, with two drooping black holes where the eyes should be . And yet that’s only a small fraction of the magical spell that “A Ghost Story” ultimately casts. What could have been an unbearably twee protracted short film is instead transformed — through Lowery’s remarkably confident direction, impressionistic sound and camera work, and a pair of heartbreakingly committed lead performances — into a galvanizing metaphysical parable about the burden of impermanence.
Woah, woah… say that again? The burden of impermanence? What is this, a collegiate lecture on ethics and duty? Stay with me here. A great many of our modern-day fictions are simply variations on the classic power play, correct? And in the more sophomoric of these works, the villain usually desires some form impermanence. He/she wants to live forever, to be powerful throughout all time, blah blah blah. How many dumbass Marvel movies have we sat through where that is literally the bad guy’s chief defining trait?
In a refreshing and radical master stroke, “A Ghost Story” acts as the poetic, transfixing flipside to that very one-dimensional idea. Lowery’s film seems to be arguing that impermanence kinda sucks: that our lives are given shape and definition by having a beginning, middle and an end, however much we may fear and fret over death. To convey this dense spectrum of memory in a fleet 85-minute runtime is already pretty damn impressive. To turn what could have been an exercise in precious film school cleverness into the year’s most emotionally rewarding picture is something approximating a miracle.
I’d like to re-iterate: though I pretty much loved every second of “A Ghost Story,” I will say this is a very peculiar and divisive movie. I suspect audiences will either loathe it to its foundation, or give themselves over to it completely. Me? I believe that if viewers can suspend their inherent cynicism for about an hour and a half and resist the urge to laugh at what could be a cringingly literal interpretation of the movie’s namesake specter, “A Ghost Story” is a movie that has the capacity to teach you things about yourself.
The greatest movies are ones that grant us some degree of perspective on the world we live in. They help to take us outside of our own egos. Sometimes, they implore us to be kinder, more understanding, less concerned with life’s daily trivialities. “A Ghost Story” is such a film, and while I can certainly understand the objections made by those who perhaps crave a story with more forward narrative thrust, it also seems like a bit of a shame that some viewers would rather these films jump through artificial plot hoops rather than attempting to reach into viewer’s souls.
That doesn’t mean Lowery’s third film is an easy sit. “A Ghost Story” is an uncompromising, real-deal experimental art film that has more in common with Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” than any other A24 release from this year. Does that mean it’s one of the year’s best films? While I’d like to reserve some time to make that assessment, my initial response is: hell to the yes.
David Lowery came to my attention with a film called “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” back in 2013. That film starred Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (who also anchor “A Ghost Story”) as criminal lovers on the run. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” was an immensely stylish debut, even if it mostly felt like a film student’s attempt to mimic the doomed, romantic blues and mystical malaise of Terrence Malick’s immortal “Badlands”. Lowery’s follow-up was a live-action, kid-friendly reimagining of “Pete’s Dragon” that just narrowly missed my top 25 list back in 2016. That wonderful film was a clear, definitive step up from Lowery’s promising but muddled debut, and proof that this was a director of esoteric and far-reaching interests.
In “A Ghost Story,” Lowery takes the homespun heartland milieu from his debut and marries it with the gloriously genuine, anything-is-possible energy of “Pete’s Dragon,” and somehow manages to come up with a movie that is wholly unlike either of his previous two pictures. If “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” borrowed the dusty murder ballad melancholy of “Badlands,” “A Ghost Story” is more far-reaching, doffing its cap to “The Tree of Life’s” inter-cosmic immensity. The movie also traffics in overwhelming long takes that often go past the three-minute mark; this kind of radical visual minimalism is pretty much synonymous with the late-career work of indie maverick Gus Van Sant (think the painterly, silent passages of “Last Days” or “Elephant”). There’s also a dash of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who also melds gritty realism and childlike fantasy to similar effect in films like 2015’s trippy stunner “Cemetery of Splendor”.
And yet, no matter how much “A Ghost Story” is the sum of its influences, this is an unquestionably personal and original work that exists in a landscape dominated by recycled ideas. To scoff at this movie’s unapologetic sincerity is to shut down our own tolerance for make-believe and magic: the kind of impulse that guides our decision-making as children, and recedes into the background of our lives as we grow older and more menial concerns begin to dictate our daily routines. “A Ghost Story” features a ghost, yes, and there are a small handful of scenes that are haunting in a kind of arthouse horror movie way. More than anything, though, this is still a film about time: about losing it, about reflecting on it, and about making the most of it while you still have it.
The movie’s defiantly un-commercial indie patina might turn away the “Cars 3” crowd, but the ultimate irony of “A Ghost Story” is how it addresses so many of our universal concerns without ever dipping into indie-film pretentiousness. It is a masterful work of art that suggests that memories hold a power all their own… and that perhaps that power will outlast our mortal forms after our homes have been reduced to dust and the world has moved on without bothering to bookmark our meager accomplishments. I suspect I’m making this movie sound like a bummer, so let me be clear: second viewing pending, “A Ghost Story” is the single most exalted movie-watching experience I’ve had this year.
Lowery drops us into the lives of “A Ghost Story’s” protagonists’ without much in the way of explanation or backstory. They are a dreamy pair of musicians who go by the cryptic monikes of C (Affleck) and M (Mara). C and M are very much in love, and they spend most of their days making music together in a ramshackle old country home somewhere on the barren outskirts of Texas. There is little to no foreshadowing of the supernatural turn that the movie will eventually take, save for some impressionistic camerawork, the ethereal tinkling of composer Daniel Hart, and a seemingly throwaway scene where C and M are awakened by ominous bumps in the night.
In an extended lateral pan that unfolds with a kind of ghastly beauty, it is revealed that C died in a car accident just outside his home in the early hours of the morning. After M is asked to identify her lover’s body at the morgue, she recedes into herself: severing all ties with the outside world, even with her friends who wish to help her. Then, the damndest thing happens. Back at the morgue, the cadaver under the white sheet … stands up. And then begins to walk around.
It is at this point that Lowery introduces us to the “ghost” of the picture, but don’t expect any forced reconciliations between Mara’s heartbroken widow and her lost love. Instead, the ghost of Affleck’s character proceeds to hang around — haunt, really — the recesses of the home he once shared with his wife. He bears witness to her grief, sadly witnessing her attempts to move on and meet other people, always silently sulking in the corner of the frame, his presence but a grave reminder of what’s been lost.
C’s ghost hangs around even after M moves out and finds another home. This heartbreaking development is essentially the crystallization of the movie’s central theme: how much of a drag it must be to exist forever across all time and space. For the remainder of the picture, C haunts the ends of the earth, searching for his purpose, unbound to anything or anyone. He takes up in the abode of a quaint, loving, middle-class Latino family. He watches their children grow older, until they too leave. He sticks around until the house he used to share with M is bulldozed into nothingness, his cherished memories of her reduced to rubble and flotsam. In watching the film’s ghost slowly bide his remaining time, realizing that he’s destined to exist in this deadening limbo for the rest of his days, Lowery is playing around with a powerful conceit: that eternal life means nothing without the lasting quality of the human connections we make.
To give away the specifics of the film’s conclusion would be borderline-criminal, though I’ve given a fair amount away already. Suffice to say, Lowery experiments with science fiction and pop philosophy in a borderline-playful fashion that suggests he may one day make a great time-travel movie. Lowery’s next film is, as we now know, a low-key crime thriller called “The Old Man and the Gun,” and it will be interesting to see him return to more modest, scaled-down work after this film. The thrilling coda of “A Ghost Story” is open-ended to such a degree that I suspect it will inspire think pieces much in the way that cineastes have devoted their entire careers to dissecting “Mulholland Drive”. Gestures this audacious are almost non-existent in American movies today, and “A Ghost Story” is practically flush with them.
There is one scene that is destined to inspire a kind of long-take infamy similar to Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”. M’s friend has just dropped off a conciliatory pie at her house when she arrives home from work, shortly after C’s passing. Crippled by grief and unable to process the immense pain she’s feeling, M proceeds to literally devour the entire pie in one unbroken, breathtaking shot that, by my estimation, went on for upwards of five minutes. Of course, C’s ghost sits silently in the corner of the room, black eyes fixated on this woman he thought he was going to be sharing the rest of his life with. It’s a wild flourish, and I suspect those who are not on board with the movie’s out-there vision by this point might be compelled to walk out into the lobby for some air. However, this is a common sensation amongst folks I’ve known — being so depressed or heartbroken that you, say, eat most of a pizza, or the entirety of a chocolate pie — that I’ve yet to see depicted in a film with such empathy. It is one of the great movie scenes of the year, and one I won’t soon forget.
A later scene sums the movie’s themes up in a more explicit, less satisfying fashion. C is ghostin’ around his old house, which is now a party den filled with blue-collar musician types. A drunken lout (played by real-life musician and troubadour Will Oldham) starts leaning into one of those tiresome tirades you hear at college parties: about how all of existence is ultimately futile, and that all we as a human species can hope to do is leave some minor impression in the tapestry of our cosmic fabric before the universe decides to swallow us whole. It’s eye-rolling, Philosophy 101 stuff, but Lowery seems to know this — the scene is played for dark laughs which then blossom into heartache. I only wish the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to elucidate on the themes of this otherwise abstract and elliptical film so bluntly. Seeing the movie’s existential concerns spelled out like Cliff Notes made me wonder if this was a note from a producer who wondered if this very opaque movie could use a jolt of pure exposition. Maybe the scene plays better upon repeat viewings.
I must confess that, after seeing Lowery’s first film so many years ago, I was unsure of where his career would go. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” displayed no shortage of promise, but the film also coasted on a kind of cinephiliac film-nerd worship that reminded me of the legions of Tarantino imitators in the early 90’s. After the one-two smash successes of “Pete’s Dragon” and now “A Ghost Story,” it feels safe to say that Lowery has become one of the more striking talents working in indie cinema today. He draws from a deep well of spirituality and earthy compassion, both of which inform the stories he chooses to tell (he also has a sensitive eye for the decaying margins of Middle America, where he’s aided immeasurably by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo). “A Ghost Story” might just be his masterpiece, and it’s one of the biggest surprises of 2017 so far. If you’re tired of the never-ending onslaught of superhero sludge and lazy remakes, look no further: this is a film that will transport you. Grade: A.