Image © A24

Film Review: A Ghost Story

Louis Gering

American indie filmmaker David Lowery returns with a provocative fourth feature film. Told through awe-inducing simplicity, leaving viewers heartbroken yet hopeful, A Ghost Story is a uniquely crafted tale of loss, grief, and atonement.

“I see dead people”, whispered a young Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. So too will anyone watching A Ghost Story, however in this film the dead look nothing like a young Bruce Willis. These wandering spirits stay true to the archetypal look of a ghost: a simple white sheet. Lowery’s evasion of today’s CGI or animation power was a daring hit-or-miss choice. That risk has turned out to be a resounding success – surprising even Lowery himself, who has told, in various interviews, how the production was fuelled by a constant fear of failure.

A Ghost Story © A24
One reason for this accomplishment is that the simple storyline allows a superb cast room to shine. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck embody M and C, a loving couple separated by C’s sudden death. Looking at her boyfriend one last time, M leaves the morgue devastated. The camera lingers though, staring through sterile light onto the cloth covered body. Suddenly the cloth begins to move; the ghost is born. From this moment on the film follows a sheet-wearing Affleck who, bound to return to the couple’s home, begins observing his grieving girlfriend.
Watching Mara try to cope with unstable emotions whilst a sheet silently stares from the edges of the frame could easily have produced cheap laughs, but instead it provokes a heart-wrenching stillness. Mara and Affleck - despite sharing less than ten minutes of screen time – have an undeniable chemistry that immediately conjures a feeling of unspoiled love. This is necessary to suggest the impalpable sadness of loss; human connection is at the core of the film.
Images of an inconsolable girlfriend and an enigmatic ghost in the same room visualise the tragic nearness of their lost love. It is here that the seemingly awkward ghost costume – painfully dragged along the floor by Affleck - gains meaning. This stereotypical ghost feels out of place, just as the former lover feels lost in a vanishing home; in place of warmth there is now only nostalgic melancholy. The tight framing of the “Academy ratio” (a smaller, square aspect used in film up until the 1950s, before the rectangular cinema screen came into widespread use) visualises this sadness through its nostalgic look, and adds a claustrophobic sense of fear. The characters feel this too: while a fear of never letting go leads M to move away, the film suggests that same fear also ties C to the house.

Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story © A24
Once alone the ghost realises that, although he is stuck to one place, he is unstuck in time. The film swiftly takes on a different pace as the ghost travels back and forth between past, present, and future: always circling his lost love. While the first part of the film consists mainly of long duration shots relative to real time, later on a single cut can span years and centuries. This superb shift in editing transforms the ghost’s journey into a new contemplation of life. Time becomes the true spectre, even able to haunt the dead. Questioning what remains of life and what is worth living for, the mute protagonist brilliantly emotes the struggle to find peace and atonement.
A Ghost Story is truly a one of a kind experience. While Lowery does not shy away from an emotionally draining story, the viewer is left with more than pain: it is hope that reverberates through this film strongest.

A Ghost Story is released in cinemas nationwide from August 11.

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