A GHOST STORY, directed by David Lowery, 2017
Review by Sean Green
A Ghost Story is a film that asks and attempts to answer the question, “What kind of mark can one life leave behind given the unimaginable scale of space and time?” The one life in this case is “C” (Casey Affleck), a musician who moves into a new home with his girlfriend, “M” (Rooney Mara), before dying shortly thereafter. Rising again as a ghost and eschewing the doorway of light, he begins to haunt the home they once shared.
There is a scene in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story where a drunk man (Will Oldham) at a house party launches into an extended monologue for the benefit of a captivated but bemused audience. The monologue, like the film, is overly long, meandering and tedious, but also mesmerising, beautiful and poignant. The scene functions essentially as the artist’s statement for the film, and presents a thesis for the meaning of life. Everything dies, and time marches on regardless. Nothing any human does has any consequence in the long term: “You can write a book,” he states, “but the pages will burn.” As the scene went on, I began to suspect this was Lowery attempting self-parody; the monologue comes to a climax and the low-key lounge EDM music playing in the background builds into the bold orchestral strings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Oldham describes in great detail the heat death of the universe with the grandiose sincerity of a teenager who has just discovered philosophy. The scene becomes comic. Yet the message the drunk expresses is a resonant one, and the swell of the orchestra is emotionally stirring. Lowery walks a careful line between comic self-deprecation and poignant melodrama throughout the film – a line that both mocks pretentious art-house interpretations of his work, whilst also making an art-house pretentious statement.
The most striking example of this line is the costume worn by C, our titular ghost. After dying ten minutes into the film he spends the rest of it dressed in a sheet with eye-holes cut out of it, a last-minute Halloween costume version of a ghost. At first the costume choice seems flippant, the kind of detached ironic joke you imagine Oldham’s character would make. As the film progresses, however, the choice turns out to be quite beautiful and apt. Affleck’s handsome face and toned body are now hidden, his identity erased; he is reduced to a pair of sad, lonely eyes peering out at a world he can no longer be a part of. C, like the audience, can only watch and see what happens. Likewise with the film’s sense of time, it lurches forward in fits and bursts before lingering almost too long on painful moments. The editing of time’s flow is used for comic and devastating effect – for example, when C manages to gain some control over his ghostly powers after seeing his girlfriend with a new man. He begins flickering lights and knocking over books in an attempt to communicate to his lover, but time skips cruelly forward and the action becomes separated from its cause, the fallen books just become something else for M to pick up and hold as a memory of him.
Every aspect of the visual language of the film seems determined to test the audience’s patience, from the washed-out pastel colour palette to the dearth of dialogue, even the choice of aspect ratio (an unusual, vignetted 1:33) gives the film a cramped, lonely and detached feel. In one scene early in the film the camera holds a 12-minute wide shot of M eating an entire pie on the floor of her kitchen as C watches on. It is the film’s emotional core, however, that elevates it beyond a mere museum piece into a haunting reflection on the meaning of life and its loss.