Using Virginia Woolf’s short story A Haunted House as a primer, Sundance Film Festival alumni David Lowery returns with his third feature, A Ghost Story, in what is a visually arresting, poignant tale of loss and grief starring Casey Affleck and a superb Rooney Mara.
With a pervading eerie quality, Lowery’s twist on a classic spooking tale opens with a lingering shot of a one-story house, surrounded with mist. Inside live a thirty-something couple, played by Affleck and Mara. Little is given away about them, we don’t ever hear their names, but from the fleeting dialogue we can gather that their relationship has seen better days. In the dark of night, the camera hovers above them, lingering over a tender kiss, whatever was troubling them vanishes in a gentle caress. Then the keys of a piano hammer, jolting us from the moment.
Lowery, who both writes and directs, is happy to take his time, adding to the unease, but allowing us to take in every detail of the exquisite shots, captured by his DOP Andrew Palermo. The next time we see Affleck he is slumped over the dashboard of his car, dead. Laying on a gurney, covered with a white sheet, he sits up – the image of a classic Scooby-Doo ghoul, complete with downward sloping black cut-outs for eyes. He hesitantly walks down the hospital corridors walking back to the home he shared with his girlfriend. The cartoonish conceit of the film demands patience. He looms in corners, starring on at Mara with a tangible longing, unable to reach her, only able to make lights flicker, and books fly from shelves. This isn’t Poltergeist (although in one scene it pays homage) nor a conventional ghost story in any shape or form, it’s wildly experimental and subversive, denying audience what teems of films of the same ilk have taught us to expect.
As the sheeted Affleck gazes on time starts to slip by in weeks, then months, then years. This is gracefully achieved in a beautifully edit montage, also done by Lowery who edited his first feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The world shifts around Affleck, passing him by as different folk come and go, his only companion is a fellow spook viewed through the next-door window who like him is patiently waiting for someone to return. In one scene, a party is being thrown, and a man in dungarees offers up his life philosophy about try as we might to live beyond the grave with works of art, eventually we will be forgotten, the universe finally eating itself. The tone is suddenly bleaker – what is the point? The playfully Affleck’s ghost causes a bulb to glow brighter. There is at times a wry sense of humour, miss-footing us, asking us not to be so sure about what we do and don’t know about life, or even death. Yet, it never reaches some trite spiritual treatise, Lowery is too smart for such a clumsy approach.
The film builds and builds, the sense of loneliness compounding with the tale becoming stranger and stranger. There is a touch of Shane Carruth about the tale, although full credit must go to Lowery’s brilliant inventiveness. One scene of aching poignancy is when Mara listens to Dark Rooms’ I Get Overwhelmed, flitting between past and present you get a sense of the love they shared, her hand stretching out, not quite touching the hem of Affleck’s shroud, just out of reach. Lowery proved himself with his first feature, showed his ability to make more commercial fare with Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, but with A Ghost Story he shows all his filmmaking talent. It’s an offbeat narrative, and it demands patience, but it’s so worth the wait in the final moments of the film, proving to be a graceful examination of love found and lost.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh