The melancholic trance of A Ghost Story, while often spellbinding and occasionally problematic, will haunt you for many nights to come--for all the right reasons.
Film historians may point to The Innocents (1961), The Sixth Sense (1999) or even Ingmar Bergman's 1957 classic Wild Strawberries when looking for comparisons to A Ghost Story, but this original screenplay from writer/director David Lowery is a unique achievement for its spare storytelling—not unlike some of filmmaker Terrence Malick's best work (which we haven't witness for a spell).
In keeping with its spartan conceit, A Ghost Story opens with a line from "A Haunted House," a 1921 short story by Virginia Woolf: "Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting." The ghostly tale was published two years after Woolf's death, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot a copy of "A Haunted House" mysteriously flying from a bookshelf during a pivotal scene of the film. When the book falls to the floor, it opens to a passage that reads, "Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause."
The mystery of both Woolf's story and A Ghost Story hovers around two empirical questions: "Who are 'they'?" and "Why are they holding silver lamps above the living?" The answer to the first question is simple, though sad:"They" are us. We are all ghosts eventually. Here's the good news: Those silver lamps we will hold above the living? They are the glimmering memories of what we once were. It's a sobering meditation but so is A Ghost Story.
The notion for this film is so lean, that its lead characters, a struggling musician and his wife, are known only as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), respectively. Early in the film, C is killed in a car accident. Moments after M walks away from C's covered body lying in a hospital morgue, he rises, still covered in a sheet. It's a jarring scene, but you may laugh bit because this ghost, with large black holes for eyes and all, looks eerily similar to the cartoon specters in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It's equal parts unsettling and familiar.
"There's a naivete to the image, and a charming handmade quality to it," Lowery told The Hollywood Reporter. "There's so much meaning behind this very simple childhood image, and I love the idea of taking that image and restoring some gravitas to it."
Another cinematic format-buster is Lowery's use of the boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio. It's like watching a small television image flashed on a big screen.
"[I]t's about someone basically trapped in a box for eternity, and I felt the claustrophobia of that situation could be amplified by the boxiness of the aspect ratio," Lowery told THR. "Then we curved the edges a little to make it feel like an old slideshow or family photograph and add a touch of nostalgia."
Though the through-line of A Ghost Story is strong, it nearly dematerializes in two laborious scenes. In the first, as M is mourning the loss of C, she slumps to the kitchen floor—and slowly eats an entire pie. It packs a distressing punch and is difficult to watch due to its length (for her sake, I hope Rooney filmed this in one take). In the second too-long scene, an intoxicated man, identified only as the "prognosticator," goes on a tedious tangent about how we're all going to die. Duh. For a film with so little dialogue, the banality of his prediction is all the more unpleasant.
In spite of those two protracted scenes, I highly recommend A Ghost Story. It's a significant achievement in avant garde cinema and, like some of the best films do, it lingers long after you leave the theater. In addition, A Ghost Story has generated a host of polarized critiques.
"It starts to feel like a bad joke—worse, a bad joke that doesn't know when to wrap up," wrote Entertainment Weekly.
Meanwhile, The New York Times called it an "ingenious and affecting new film."
I wholeheartedly agree with the latter. Put this one on your list.