Milo Garner reviews David Lowery’s vision of grief.
From its marketing, A Ghost Story looks like a very typical Sundance film – the 4:3 aspect ratio (with rounded corners), the peculiar plot, and of course the sheet-with-holes ghost at the centre of it all. But, despite expectations, David Lowery’s film manages to venture to some more interesting territory than might be expected. The story centres on two unnamed lovers (credited as C, Casey Affleck, and M, Rooney Mara), and the aftermath of the man’s death. After dying he returns as a ghost, apparently trapped in the house where he lived in life, and watches his beloved grieve. She eventually moves out, leaving behind a note in the wall as was her custom (just in case she returned), and here the tale takes an unexpected turn. While one might have expected a film like this to follow Mara’s character going through life, marrying, having children, through the eyes of her deceased lover, it and he instead remain trapped in the house where they lived. He sees other families move in, he sees the house demolished, a skyscraper built – he even sees the house as it was first built by settlers in an interesting twist of time.
Because, as the film’s tagline suggests, ‘it’s all about time’. In the film’s early scenes a slow cinema aesthetic prevails, with simple moments captured in incredibly long takes. This has the effect of extending time, imbuing certain images with a longevity that implies meaning. The scene to take all the buzz for this is one in which Mara eats an entire pie in a single five or so minute take. Here a moment of self-destructive (don’t eat a whole pie, kids) grief is presented in an intimate and unavoidable manner. As the film progresses, however, time also begins to loosen. As Mara’s life continues after Affleck’s death, the ghost’s perception of her life becomes condensed. The repetition begins to fold onto itself, and between cuts ever-greater lengths of time are passing. After she leaves, whole years and even decades, begin to pass in seconds, though edited in such a way as to never feel obvious or jarring. Eventually the ghost, apparently, finds himself in the past, when the house was first built, and waits as history plays out again. He waits until he sees himself and Mara move in, and experiences their entire romance again. This time, however, there are no long takes. It’s over almost as soon as it begins, concentrated into a few moments of love and conflict. Regret, of course, abounds.
This leads into another theme the film hints at, of meaning and existentialism. This is only suggested vaguely, but as we see the ghost wait and wait, seeing the same things happening across hundreds of years, one might begin to wonder what the point of it is. The house always ends up unoccupied eventually: a microcosmic world, perhaps. The ghost grows frustrated at this helpless observance and so does what ghosts do – he haunts. He breaks plates, flickers lights, opens and shuts doors. Lowery manages to integrate the classic ‘ghost story’ into this film with a wonderful charm without seeming overly twee (one conversation between ghosts, wordless yet subtitled, pushes this a little, but is thankfully short and exceptional). It seems that the ghost might only find himself free upon discovering meaning or, like the other ghost, accepting meaninglessness. As such the film strikes an interesting tone – sad and searching, yet inherently intriguing.
Besides this thematic strength, the film also looks and sounds wonderful. The cinematography, focusing on the indelible imagery at its centre (bed-sheet wearing might not be fashionable as of late, but that association is happily absent), excels in its contrast and composition. The composition is notable, too, for the 4:3 aspect ratio, which is used for its best purpose (capturing human bodies) rather than as a gimmick. Even the rounded corners, which are a gimmick, meld well with the general aesthetic, such as the soft lighting. The soundtrack, by Daniel Hart, is similarly good, characterized by mournful strings and ambient soundscapes, beautifully accompanying the visual palette of the film. However, Dark Rooms’ track ‘I Get Overwhelmed’ is the auditory centrepiece of the film; this reflective song represents the romance of Mara and Affleck, and is suitably delicate and longing. This review should end here, with a glowing recommendation and perhaps the complaint that the film might feel a little overly self-important for its rather thinly applied messages. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Around the middle of this happily unique venture comes a scene at a party, wherein Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (also known as Will Oldham, who makes excellent music in his day-job) goes on a long, nihilist rant. Pretentiously credited as ‘Prognosticator’, he is given the film’s centre stage to wax lyrically on the utter meaninglessness of the universe, with the grace and sagacious insight of Nietzsche’s Wikipedia page. He begins in response to a ‘friend’ (people like this do not have friends) of his who is struggling to write a book, eruditely suggesting that without God there is no inherent purpose in creating anything (I suppose we must accept this, as everyone else at the table has). He then goes on to insinuate that therefore we must create for our children, that meaning is garnered through the propagation of the self, in some way, through the generations. Again, we are to take this as fact. But then he decides to obnoxiously ask if anyone in the room has children, and declare, beer can in hand, that they are all going to die eventually. I suppose Lowery was aiming for a sort of rugged Diogenes vibe with this character, but instead he just comes off as a cretin.
Moving on with his thesis he decides if everyone on earth is going to die, why do anything. But he quickly pre-empts a question – what about humans beyond earth. Of course he answers this by suggesting that it doesn’t matter where humans live, they’re all going to die anyway- Oh wait, no. He instead goes on a tangent about humans spreading across the universe and how it would still be meaningless eventually, as said universe is set to collapse in on itself. He frames his argument using Beethoven’s 9th as his example, and in a moment so truly awful I had to genuinely consider if it was parody, Ode to Joy starts playing to the climax of his big speech. The sort of insight that might be scoffed at in one of Fellini’s pseudo-intellectual parties is here celebrated as some deeply astute philosophizing, so powerful that for the duration of his speech no one ever dares interrupt him or his cognizance. Sadly, Q&As with Lowery confirm that this character is little less than a self-insert, and that this philosophy is his own. Even if some of the ideas are not inherently incorrect, they are communicated with such imprecision and naivety that they cannot be taken seriously whatsoever. The tragedy of it is that this scene dictates the rest of the mostly dialogue-free film – this is its intellectual centre. As such, the film loses much of its wonderful ambiguity to become a far less interesting visual metaphor for this truly dire middle scene. Howard Hawks once said that a ‘good movie’ was ‘three great scenes, no bad ones’. This is what happens when a bad one slips in.
P.S. Walking home I spotted a busker playing, very appropriately, Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. As I went by he was on the spoken word part of the song – ‘What you gotta lose, you know? You come from nothing, you’re going back to nothing. What you lost? Nothing!’ Those lines have more wit and wisdom than did the entirety of A Ghost Story’s monologue. And Monty Python were joking.
A Ghost Story is out now in UK cinemas. Check out the trailer below.