A Ghost Story

An original film

A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery, is the ultimate anti-blockbuster film. It is slow, with long takes and little dialogue, and eschews any violent action or special effects. There aren’t any car chases or bombs going off.

Lowery plays with our conception of time as linear. In addition to the long takes, he makes quick cuts from one time period to another.

And it will not set any box-office records. It only stayed one week at my local cinema, and when I viewed it, I was one of three people in the theater.

But art and popularity don’t always go together. This is an original film that forces us to linger with its characters in stillness. It takes us out of our comfort zone and confronts us with themes we may not want to face.

The film opens with a couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), named C and M, respectively, in the credits, in bed together, talking yet clearly feeling apart. They hear a noise but can’t find its source. She mentions writing notes and putting them in a crack in a wall in their house. Both of these occurrences will come into play later.

Later, the man dies in a car wreck, but we see only the aftermath of the wreck. He becomes a ghost and appears as a figure in a white sheet with dark eyeholes. He goes from the morgue to his house and observes M as she grieves. No one can see him, other than another ghost in the house next door. At one point they communicate nonverbally, and the film provides subtitles, a humorous touch.

This may sound corny, but Lowery’s artful direction pulls it off. So does Affleck, who can only use gestures to show sadness or surprise. Lowery is obviously using a genre—even his title is generic—but he takes it to greater depths. The ghost is our surrogate, an observer that stands outside time and watches M grieve, sees the house eventually fall apart, and visits the location’s past and its future.

Rather than the usual widescreen lens, Lowery uses an old-fashioned 1:33:1 aspect ratio, like a square with rounded corners. This removes details from the sides of scenes and focuses our attention on the room or person we are watching. Lowery takes risks, testing our ability to stay with the story, but it pays off.

One much-discussed scene shows the grieving M. eat almost an entire pie, then vomit it up. The take lasts over four minutes. It may seem superfluous at first, but it shows the irrational nature of grief.

Lowery plays with our conception of time as linear. In addition to the long takes, he makes quick cuts from one time period to another. This is disorienting, making it hard to follow the story, but it also challenges our usual way of viewing events.

The ghosts seem to be in a kind of purgatory, looking for meaning. A later scene focuses on a man at a party who goes on a nihilistic rant about the meaninglessness of the universe and how our eventual death renders life purposeless. But this seems only one of many possible ways of viewing life and death.

 A Ghost Story explores the afterlife without offering any answers, only questions. It even ends with an unsolved mystery. Most of all, it helps us feel the sadness of watching time go by and loved ones leaving and passing.

This film is not for everyone or even most people, but it’s one of the best I’ve seen this year.

Rated R for brief language and a disturbing image.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.