The Beauty and Frustration With “A Ghost Story”
The “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” team come together, again, and give audiences one chilling ghost story
In 2013, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints re-imagined the Bonnie and Clyde story and dominated the indie film scene that year. The story was simple: a couple, very much in love, get caught up in criminal activity. The film possessed the qualities of a great folk story: exciting, emotional and timeless. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the couple, give sensational performances; the film was the first written and directed venture of David Lowery. On top of those attributes, the film possesses a mesmerizing visual beauty and fantastic score. Lowery gave viewers a top film for 2013.
The team of Lowery, Mara and Affleck are back with A Ghost Story, and it is as unique of a film I have seen in a long, long time.
The film began as an argument in the spring of 2016. Lowery wanted to stay in the house his wife and he called home; his wife wanted to move. The idea intrigued Lowery, and he began writing a script. The argument alone was not enough to entice Lowery to pursue a new movie. An image, one that is featured on the film’s poster, interested Lowery and pushed him to realize the film’s potential: a ghost.
This ghost, however, would conjure up images of nostalgia. Possessing no human features and not transparent, the ghost Lowery had in mind was the classic sheet over the body with black dots for eyes. Comical at first, this image is simple yet packs an emotional punch to the point Lowery makes in A Ghost Story. At times, the film is a hard watch: sometimes because how Lowery tells his story and sometimes because the subject matter is dark and desolate. A Ghost Story is filled with technical triumphs and resonating story that will stay with any viewer for a long time.
The film begins with a couple — nameless in the movie but portrayed by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck — in their house in an unknown location. There is tension between the couple, but both show signs of affection and clearly love one another. One night they are awaken by a loud bang on their piano; the next cut is to a car wreck outside their house. Affleck is dead. The rest of the film follows his ghost — the blank, white sheet — as he ventures back to visit Mara and haunt the house they shared. The film jumps time, exploring the past, present and future of a ghost’s haunt.
A Ghost Story is a challenging film, but rewards its viewer with patience. Its deliberately paced slow, though it has a 90 minute run-time. We sit and linger on simple images: Mara eating pie (The scene lasts 6–8 minutes long. A cool tidbit is that scene was Mara’s first time eating pie in her life. Mara said in an interview, “That was my first and last pie.”); the couple checking on a noise during the night; a man ranting. The scenes feel as if they could have been cut down, but doing so would cut into their power. The pie eating scene, which takes place after Affleck’s funeral, is a heart-breaking visual of Mara experiencing grief. No words and no music, Mara continually eats until she can not eat another bite — to which she rushes to the bathroom and throws up the pie. The emotionally, silent scene packs a bigger punch than an emotionally charged monologue. Her choice to stuff her face tells us everything about how she feels losing her love.
The image of the ghost, and how Lowery used the character, is fascinating. Speechless, emotionless, the ghost of Affleck’s is spooky. (Yes, that is Affleck underneath the sheets). He is not out to possess or kill — what viewers might typically find in horror films. Affleck’s ghost wants to observe. In life, while his wife wants to leave, Affleck wants to stay. He is attached to the place — which he later confesses is because “he likes the history”. Once dead, Affleck haunts the house. He witnesses Mara leave, new people move in, the destruction of the house and the future of the property. His spirit travels back in time to when the area was first settled, and sees the settlers of his property killed by members of a Native American tribe. Affleck’s ghost has a different concept of time than anyone living. In a blink of an eye, he is transported to different timelines of the house. Just as Mara’s character is “boxed in” by Affleck’s death, his ghost is “boxed in” by the house.
We experience a ghost’s perspective of life after death. Affleck’s ghost battles grief, jealousy and happiness too. While the image of a “bed-sheet” ghost might be comical, Lowery shoots the spectral visitor with such care that the ghost is a haunting figure — yet one we develop empathetic feelings. We hope he finds true peace once dead, and his journey to find that peace takes the audience on wild journeys. The time-hopping is jarring, but the rules of the world is clear: ghosts are not bound by the same time structure as the living. Yet, they are bound by places, people and memories that have them linger, spook and mystify.
Lowery is a master director. His choices of how to shoot the film give A Ghost Story its strongest feature. Lowery shot in a 1:33:1 ratio, a square frame. The aspect ratio gives the film a unique look. Lowery chose that ratio because of the visual of the characters actually being “boxed in”. It heightens the loneliness and grief felt by Mara and Affleck (including his ghost). The aspect ratio also visualizes a nostalgic look to the film. It feels as if the story is an old folk tale — a timeless story of love and loss. Affleck’s character has that connection with history, while Mara wants to lose that connection. The audience is always aware of the past and our connection with who came before us by using that aspect ratio. His choice of filming his tale like this is mightily effective.
The film is visually stunning. Along with the technical aspects, the film looks as if painted portraits and scenery come to life. Lowery favors lingering wide shots, which beautifully details this world. The viewer is given a chance to sit and ponder at the images on screen, as anyone would do so with a painting at an art museum. Our eyes take in the lighting, movement and texture of the shots, usually focused on one thing while the action happens in the background or out of focus. I loved this choice. Lowery composes beautiful shots of the house at different parts of the day, Mara’s bare back as the couple investigate a noise at night and the various shots of the ghost walking about the house. Lowery gives us visual eye-candy.
A Ghost Story is a tough watch. The film is not violent, gory or even “scary”: it is a haunting story of loss, grief and the powers of nostalgia. The emotional impact of the film is rewarded to viewers who can toughen through the long takes, strange imagery and dark tone. A Ghost Story is powerful and will linger inside your mind for a very long time.