Ambiguous, opaque, and highly original, A Ghost Story is an otherworldly brew that’s both wrenching and dryly funny; a gorgeously-shot-and-scored meditation on time, loss, grief, and mortality; and a potent reminder that great cinema requires nothing more than courage, vision, and execution. If you are patient and can get on its wavelength (and perhaps only some will), it’s absolutely devastating.
A Ghost Story is one of those films that by definition is hard to categorize, or even to provide a synopsis. Most simply, after M (Rooney Mara, channeling the fleeting glimpses of romance from previous efforts Her and Carol) loses her partner, C (Casey Affleck, channeling the affecting stoicism from his Oscar-winning role in Manchester by the Sea) in a car accident, she develops a tendency to overeat while he returns – hidden under a white sheet with eye-holes – to haunt the old suburban house that they shared together.
As the final product was unknown, A Ghost Story was shot completely in secret over three summer months in Austin, with a production budget of approximately $100,000, the kind of financial constraint that’s only been imposed on films like Pi, The Blair Witch Project, and Super Size Me (although it had a great deal more than famous micro-budget experiments like Primer and Paranormal Activity, A Ghost Story had barely half the funding of darling Irish romantic musical Once).
While writer-director David Lowery found creative ways to make the money go far (the house was about to be demolished and the crew was allowed to use for free), the lack of financing also lends the film an undeniable down-to-earth charm, and prompted Lowery and the actors to “make do” with a plain white sheet as costuming for Affleck’s spectre. In addition, it emanates vibes of being forged at that most artistically productive of intersections: the crossing of a simple-yet-profound premise and a passion project for its participants.
The last film I can remember being kept so out of the public eye before a festival release is Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (unveiled at Telluride and TIFF in 2012); the last film I can remember being completed with so little backing due to the commitment of those involved is Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (unveiled at Sundance in 2010): both films were among the best of their respective years. For A Ghost Story, Lowery chose to shoot in a 1:33:1 aspect ratio because he felt that it was thematically appropriate for a story about temporal claustrophobia.
Prior to A Ghost Story, Lowery appeared to have the most scattershot directorial experience: his debut was the 2013 romantic crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, after which Disney gave him control of the fantasy adventure Pete’s Dragon; in between, he directed an episode of the highly acclaimed Sundance television show Rectify. Looking closer, however, Lowery had also developed partnerships with indie stalwarts like Amy Seimetz (as editor of Sun Don’t Shine), Shane Carruth (as co-editor of Upstream Color), and Alex Ross Perry (as producer of Listen Up Philip).
To be clear, A Ghost Story is absolutely a litmus test for whether one finds something like it – a dense, opaque, non-narrative arthouse film that refuses to provide answers – pretentious or fascinating. And there are filmmakers that have gone for broke, even recently, and accomplished near works of art (see: Carruth’s sophomore feature and The Forbidden Room, among others). It is somewhat disappointing to see Lowery collapse for a few scenes into conventional, dialogue-driven scenes and voiceover to give expression to his thoughts and questions, especially when the visual storytelling that comes before and after is ten times more effective in communicating the same thing.
But thankfully, the weakest portion of A Ghost Story is the middle section, which makes it easiest to forgive: the opening is lovely, with fantastic cinematography and some of the most memorable editing seen in months (just watch for the way the camera drops from the sky to the house in a split-second or the way Lowery creates a fluid illusion that M is completing the same actions multiple times in a row). Eerie and poetic, it’s a mesmerizing reverie on the quote “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”
And the ending is perhaps even better, if not as transcendent as the wordless final act of Upstream Color: it’s a montage of the life of the universe that somehow brings it back to the story of two people. Even if some will criticize the film as slow or weird or pretentious, it is undeniable that Lowery is doing something special: he uses subtitles in a context that should be ridiculous and yet feels both fitting and appropriately amusing, and presents a past-and-present musical contrast that appears to be an artistic gimmick and yet is emotionally overwhelming.
And through it all, Mara and Affleck ground their characters in a world of magical, heartbreaking reality. To love and to be loved is one of the most fundamental human aims, and by tapping into the desire to connect from beyond the grave, Lowery has told not only a universal story, but an existentially profound one, something like The Tree of Life by way of Bright Star, with a sprinkle of sci-fi. First let it wash over you, then contemplate.