MOVIE REVIEW: A Ghost Story
5th Chicago Critics Film Festival Closing Night Film
A GHOST STORY-- 3 STARS
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story opens with a citation from Virginia Woolf’s short story “A Haunted House,” a rather telling and appropriate allusion. Like Woolf’s descriptive modernist classic parabolizing a longing ghostly couple within the pulse and heart of the house they share, Lowery’s chamber piece summons and subverts the precepts of a traditional spectral fable to striking results. The leap to select such a cup of tea that A Ghost Story represents already begs for the first lesson.
LESSON #1: THE AFTERLIFE IS A TOUCHY SUBJECT-- Metaphorically or not, when someone starts talking about or presenting a vision of the hereafter, a place with zero factual standing and 100% personal conjecture, they are opening the door to wildly different interpretations, reactions, and levels of acceptance. What is stirring and inspiring for one psyche could be objectionable or unsightly to another.
Welcome to the polarizing gamut of engagement, acceptance, and disquiet of A Ghost Story. This is a wholly original film that takes preparation, patience, absorption, and reflection that some, or even many, may not be ready for. Presented in the rounded and claustrophobic corners of a centered 1.33:1 aspect ratio, it is safe to say, you will see nothing like this all year and maybe several more.
A Ghost Story follows an unnamed husband and wife played by Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints returning co-collaborators Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. He is a struggling artist and she is the responsible wife living in an older single-level ranch home in the fog and brushy forest of semi-rural Texas. Small morsels of their relationship are fleshed out before the husband unexpectedly dies, shifting the tone of the entire narrative to a bleak and dire place.
After his passing, the husband takes the form of a ghost, but not the glowing Patrick Swayze type. As beautiful as it is deliberately crude and rudimentary, he is cloaked and draped in the billowing creases and folds of a white sheet, complete with unemotive black cut-out eyes (skillful craftsmanship from costume designer Annell Brodeur). The walking apparition finds his way from the hospital gurney back to his house. He is on an invisible path and drawn to an unspoken need, searching or waiting for a representation of closure or acceptance while watching his wife carry on without him. This voyeuristic wait becomes a pensive and introspective journey that spans years.
There is no arguing the spiritual ambition of David Lowery’s secretly shot passion project. That is the first in a plethora of characteristics to respect about A Ghost Story. Even through a boxy frame, the cinematography of sophomore feature DP Andrew Droz Palermo immerses itself in pastoral natural light and scenery. The people who are trying to compare this film to Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki are getting it all wrong. Lowery’s long takes and dialogue-less stretches blow away Malick’s penchant for hopscotching every four seconds between actors and Lubezki’s random natural imagery. A Ghost Story has a calmer presence that ominously lingers on the power of silence better than any recent Malick film.
As suggested by my “cup of tea” expression and the first lesson, the challenge of A Ghost Story is not without towering obstacles. Atmosphere wins over acting, even with Rooney Mara's balancing act between blank and stoic. High poetry like this requires patience and an open mind for 92 sometimes grueling minutes. The patience necessary here can be tedious as much as it is enriching, which may, in fact, be the point. Multiple viewings soften the sting. Still, much of A Ghost Story could become a complete and even maddening head-scratcher leaving you grasping for connection and the greater point.
One, and maybe the only truly clear, emotional anchor in this minimalist film is musician Daniel Hart’s ethereal score mixing minor electronica with hints of an organ. Lowery requisitioned Hart’s song “I Get Overwhelmed” performed by his band Dark Rooms after being unable to shake its tone of desperation while writing. The song becomes a welcome thematic and hypnotizing nucleus within the film (after already killing it in the trailer). You want more of it and the romanticism it brings to the point where you realize you might have needed more juice than a preaching of restraint and a temporal rumination on eternity or finality.
LESSON #2: DON’T EAT YOUR FEELINGS-- You’ll see. Pass a fork.
LESSON #3: GHOSTS AS OBSERVERS-- Call them what you will. As watchers, voyeurs, witnesses, or even meddlers, ghosts carry a watchful presence of unseen participation. We, as the audience to people of grief in A Ghost Story, are complicit to their window and point of view of the evolving world.
LESSON #4: GHOSTS ARE REMNANTS-- Catholics call their place of lost souls purgatory. Whatever the name or comparison, ghosts can be vessels and vehicles for loneliness, loss, and attachment to people and places. They represent the wake a person leaves when the pass on. In this film’s bare mythology, they have fading memories and unfinished business before moving on to whatever existential plane follows.