It feels like a public service obligation to first note that A Ghost Story is not a horror movie. The third film by Writer-director-editor David Lowery is instead a rumination of loss that covers the pain of the moment and the eternal lingering echoes left beyond mortal existence. It’s an impressionistic work akin to Terrence Malick’s evolved style yet more intelligible and emotional. Lowery shows confident control of cinema’s storytelling elements to conjure the spectral energy of the intangible within living people by presenting a story from the perspective of the most iconic form of a ghost: a bed sheet with two black eye holes. That the ghost is made so tangible makes for more than a gimmick. It’s a bridge to the physical world via familiar iconography.
Early in the movie, Lowery sets up the film’s metaphysical qualities by dwelling on mundane, casually performed scenes of two intimately connected people, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), as they settle into their new, small home in what appears to be a rural community. Nature sprawls here, not homes. Still, there is enough history to create a presence in the home. Between cuddles in bed, things bump in the night. At one point, a bit of prismatic light superimposed over what looks to be the universe appears on the wall — a clear signifier of the film’s theme, both earthly and momentary to heavenly and eternal.
Outside, a floating camera on M suggests the presence of an omniscient entity while the 4:3 framing with rounded edges of the movie suggest confinement and sentiment to time gone by, though mise-en-scène places the movie in the present. As the film’s editor, Lowery shows an intense sensitivity to sculpting with time. C and M’s faces turned toward each other in bed in an overhead shot are presented in muted contrast. Their hair seems to blend them to together. The camera lingers at such a length that when it fades out, it creates a ghostly afterimage that foreshadows what’s to come.
Lowery’s work as an editor is noteworthy in how a lingering camera captures the everyday but touching moments of shared experiences between the two lovers in life, death and beyond. As the energy of life is captured via intimate moments, especially in the lovers’ stillness together, the pain when one is ripped away from that life, is treated with the same mundane quality. After C dies in a car crash and M returns from the hospital, a casual visit to the kitchen garbage can becomes something profound. She lingers over the refuse inside just long enough to transmit that there might be something there that they tossed away in life, when they were together. The idea of an act as routine as throwing out some garbage becomes a reminder of what was once taken for granted. Lowery does not resort to any heavy-handed cutting designed to instruct the viewer to make specific observations, however. The camera stays at a distant medium shot on M to stay true to the humdrum moment, yet even at a distance, the actress captures the feeling of loss when confronted by the immaterial that remains as an unexpected reminder of a time when C was alive. So when she shuts the trash lid it strikes a chord.
It could be all that is needed, but Lowery goes beyond during an extended take of M devouring a homemade pie gifted to her by friend. This is the film’s final truly long take. If the thoughts that come in the moment are loaded, this is the film’s richest, saddest instance, as M pushes through the pie as she pushes through her mourning, while, unbeknownst to her, in the corner of the house, stands C — a ghost who has yet to understand his ability to reach out to the living. The film’s editing then takes on a different pace. While M tries to move on, captured in seconds as she walks in and out the front door in different clothes, C stands there, frozen in his eternity. As the ghost can’t do much but stand there, scenes are extended to show seasons passing in a single panning shot across a window. Light and shadow shift in a blink, meanwhile M appears to have moved on. Time becomes a blur, as indeed C discovers he can do more with haunting a place than just stand on one place, a place where he happened to have loved someone once, a place that will see the comings and goings of others and an evolution even beyond time.
Just as the film’s scenes are carefully paced to capture something beyond time, the music by longtime Lowery collaborator Daniel Hart is carefully placed to support scenes of the supernatural state of C in contrast to the silences in the film depiction of the everyday. The music, composed mostly of delicate, churning string work, is sublimely appropriate to the presence of C as a ghost. The score makes its first strong appearance against the drone of the hospital equipment and lights, as C the ghost rises in an unpopulated morgue, a scene that is of course extended to allow for the appreciation of its emptiness.
Beginning with the haze of speculating on what it might feel like to be a phantom, A Ghost Story offers a poetic statement on the eternity of love in a spiritual place. The film’s patient pace and natural performances, which also feature musicians like Kesha and Will Oldham channeling a bit of their own personas, buoy the film’s entrancing, meditative quality that also doesn’t forget ironic humor in its portentous theme. In the end, A Ghost Story uses elements of cinema beyond storytelling, as if the filmmakers are presenting a place where feelings might go once they are lost between partners, a sort of unstoppable energy transmitting in light that transcends mortality.
A Ghost Story runs 92 minutes and is rated R.
- Screening update: the film opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on Aug. 4.
It earlier opened theatrically in South Florida on Friday, July 28, at the following theaters:
- Aventura Mall 24 Theatres Aventura
- South Beach 18 Miami Beach
- Sunset Place 24 Theatres South Miami
- Cinepolis Grove 15 Coconut Grove
- City Place 20 West Palm Beach
- Downtown at the Mall Gardens Palm 16 Palm Beach Gardens
- Palace 20 Boca Raton
- Shadowood 16 Boca Raton
For nationwide screenings, please click here. A24 invited us to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.