Risk-taking in mainstream American cinema is a rare quality to encounter right now. With a certain amount of tentpole pictures being produced and not really leaving room for mid-budget efforts unless they are a sure bet at the box office, ambitious cinema has slightly stagnated but not disappeared entirely. Some young filmmakers are figuring out ways to circumvent the system and produce original pieces of work with great scope and bravado so when something like A Ghost Story comes along, it should be celebrated and lauded for its tenacity to attempt something out of the ordinary. An existential meditation on life after death, the terrifying, confusing passage of time, the seductive allure of grief and the celestial fingerprint we leave behind once we pass on, David Lowrey’s new film is certainly not afraid of tackling the big questions. However, an immense amount of thought has been put into their presentation and this part-horror, part-art piece, peppered with moments of quiet humour, means that A Ghost Story excels in unpredictability. But like the titular ghost of the title, the films machinations stay covert and organic.
The platform for Lowrey’s exploration takes the shape of a normal, loving relationship between a man and a woman, never named, as they play out their last few weeks in a house they have shared together for years. When the man is killed in a car accident just outside the home, his spirit decides to exile himself from the afterlife due to, what we can only assume to be, unfinished business. He returns to their house and the memories of their relationship, determined to hold onto his existence for as long as possible. Even with the brutal emotion of the film’s beginnings and the aforementioned lofty ideas at play, the core strength of A Ghost Story is that it never emits even a whiff of self-seriousness.
This can be seen in that the film’s most overt stylistic choice (one amongst many) is that it chooses to depict trapped, earthbound souls as the comically cliche figure of a ghost, draped in a white sheet with eyeholes cut out for good measure. Despite its initial hilarity, as the film goes on it feels like an image that will go down as one of art-cinema’s most audacious. Even the poster’s tagline, ‘Its just a matter of time.” pokes fun at its own grandstanding ideology but all this only makes for a more personal, grounded experience than something like, say, Tree of Life, a more formidable and cryptic take on similar themes. By the time we watch a dungaree-wearing partygoer drunkenly spew out a half-baked philosophical rant on our place within the passage of time, we aren’t surprised to find it both surprisingly moving and oddly sincere.
Behind all this heady conceptual framework however, lies two performances worthy of great acclaim, so very necessary in order to grant the film the sense of pathos it needs. Rooney Mara’s driven, wide-eyed portrayal of a grief-stricken lover is offset perfectly by Casey Affleck’s detached coolness, their organic on-screen relationship setting the stage with great precision before being torn down later on by Lowrey’s engulfing phantasmagoria, scattering everything to the winds. If Affleck is the one under that sheet, the idiosyncratic physicality of his performance must be unlike any other performance in cinema. Great credit as well should go to the aforementioned drunken partygoer, played by indie music darling Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham) who has the film’s longest and most effecting monologue. This is how you do exposition, with consummate acting and skilful script work.
Lowery makes sure that there is plenty of room for interpretation in A Ghost Story but avoids any pitfalls of absolute elusion in order to secure a deserved emotional finality to his character’s story. Any comparisons with other genre-defying directors like Malick or Weerasethakul are certainly justified but when the film slows down to a Tarkovsky like place during key moments of the central narrative, it has a whiff of the great Russian existentialist filmmaker. It would be easy to attach these long, still shots of seemingly banal events to the art gallery think pieces of slow-cinema but remember, this is a film about time. It wants us to experience this universally intangible concept in all of its glory, be that a tidal wave of centuries that sweep by in the blink of an eye or a tragic, almost voyeuristic long take of Rooney Mara drowning her grief by consuming an entire pie in front of us. A Ghost Story gives an effervescent physicality to the battle raging between time as a personal obstacle to overcome and an unstoppable force we should not even try to control, creating a whiplash of empathy and awe unlike anything else that current cinema has to offer.
A Ghost Story will be playing as part of Sundance London over the weekend of 1-4 June. For more information, visit their website. It will be released in UK cinemas on 11 August this year.