David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) is a slow cinema that channels the subtle visual tropes of contemporary realist-surrealist masters Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Pedro Costa, and Carlos Reygadas to contemplate on the eternally haunting themes of time, grief and existence. David Lowery who made his directorial debut with visually poetic indie drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara – followed it up with marvelously entertaining live-action Disney fantasy Pete’s Dragon (2016). After working three years on a studio film, Lowery had returned back to his indie roots with an image of a sheet-ghost which kept flashing upon in his mind. A Ghost Story originated initially as a 10 page script about two lovers, death and a spirit. The script later expanded to 30 pages and Lowery roped in his friends Affleck and Mara to play the lead roles who also now happened to be Oscar-nominated stars (in the case of Affleck he had just won an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea).
David Lowery just took his actors to Irving, Texas where he filmed his first movie but this time kept the project under wraps, hoping to not build any kind of expectations. In the ‘Rolling Stone’ interview, when asked why he took this decision, Lowery replies: “Because I wanted to give us the chance to fail. And at first, I felt like there was an extremely high probability of that happening.” Looking at Rooney Mara gorging on a pie in real time or Casey Affleck stuck inside a large white cloth with two black eye-holes, A Ghost Story seems to be, at least for the first few minutes, leaning on absurdity factor despite some moving visuals. But once I got past this goofy setup and get on its singular wavelength, Lowery’s hauntingly creative and relentlessly thoughtful visuals conveyed more profound emotions and ideas than what I expected.
Director Lowery has a fair estimate of how his movie would be received: “I knew that it would probably alienate 90 percent of moviegoers. And I was okay with that. I was making this movie for myself. I knew there were a handful of people who share my taste so I wouldn’t be the only person who liked it, but I figured it would probably rub most people the wrong way” [in Slant Magazine interview]. Employing the strangely potent Malick-ian sense of vision and boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio, the film opens with the image of a couple cuddling on a couch. A flash of ectoplasm moves across the wall without visibly disturbing the warmth of their intimacy. The couple is only identified as M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck), living their quiet life in a small country-side cottage. Lowery explores M (a musician) and C’s relationship through the cozy domestic space and through deep closeness that lingers after their fulfillment of erotic needs. Although the movie has no narrative, there’s one event worth mentioning: M and C are roused from their sleep by a strange sound in the living room. This event is burdened with an emotional weight when Lowery returns back to it towards the end.
Even though the initial scenes depicting M and C’s cohabitation feels typical of low-key indie romances, it contains a cumulative power which could be felt in the third half of the narrative. A painfully slow pan across the spacious suburbs at dawn reveals the aftermath of a car crash. C lies lifeless at the wheel. Later C awakens in the morgue, taking the form of a ghost and travels back to his house through Poletergeist-esque portal. Cloaked in white-sheet with crudely cut eye-holes, C’s non-corporeal form looks like a child’s idea of a restless spirit. Unable to comfort his mourning lover, the ghost passively watches M succumbing to her grief. It silently gazes as she proceeds to eat a large-sized pie, an act that seems to be done to satisfy the literal hunger but the dazed binging reflects her need to numb the inner anguish. We may have seen quite a lot of movies demonstrating the people’s inability to move on after the loss of loved one. But what if this inability haunts a ghost? And how life and time unfurls from a sheet-ghost’s perspective? A totally unanticipated, enchantingly objective and mind-blowing second-half asks more quietly devastating questions like this, eventually contemplating on the very nature of time and meaning of our existence.
The fascinating visual conceit of A Ghost Story is the depiction of the non-corporeal entity’s (ghost) sadness and emotional burden which isn’t constrained by the concept of time. After the wordless expression of M’s grief in the pie-eating scene, time moves faster while the ghost’s reluctance to let go of her remains the only constant factor. The warm physical space, memories made in the space, and the final note M places inside small crack of the wall earnestly expresses the ghost's wordless despair. There’s a repeated shot of M moving between her room and living room door without any cut which brilliantly conveys movement of time alongside a sense of being stuck. Did M redeemed or surrendered herself through the phase of grief, we really don’t know since she moves out of the house that unsettled her from the very first moment (perfectly at the film’s half-way point and she actually drives into sunset). What follows is the ghost’s unfathomable yet rapid progress through time. It becomes a poltergeist terrorizing the family of a Hispanic single mother and once again stands as a passive spectator, hearing a hipster’s long monologue on the meaninglessness of existence at a house party. The hipster and amateur philosopher is played by Old Joy (2006) actor Will Oldham (also a songwriter) who unromantically prognosticates on the death of all matter: “…..Your kids are all gonna die and their kids will die…….”
Writer/director Lowery only further ramps up the existentialism as he demolishes the ghost’s profound sense of attachment to the house, and in its place glitzy skyscrapers arise. The ghost prattles through eternity, searching for the one little thing it lost. It also travels back in time to a distant past when a settler family is massacred by unseen Native Americans. A simple shot/reverse shot moves across months, showing the fresh corpse of a child to its decomposed state. These intriguing digressions convey time’s devastation in cosmic proportions. And, Lowery slowly but sure-handedly comes back to the placid suburban home for a metaphysical final act. After traveling with the ghost in an emotionally paralyzed state, we return back to the warm couch and the couple’s feelings of love. The early prolonged shot of the lover’s embrace springs up from our memory and now the mundane setup looks magical. The stillness of their emotional and physical intimacy seems more transfixing than the journey across time. What’s the meaning of all 'this' (this being the malady of existence) may be the unanswerable question that annoys us. Returning back to this small, earlier moment of closeness the value (or meaning) of their life, however, seems to strongly resound through the frames.
Director David Lowery had listed out range of avant-garde and mainstream works that inspired his aesthetic and thematic exploration. Starting from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to Poltergeist and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, the idea of an eternally bound ghost is derived unexpectedly from different sources. As I mentioned earlier, Lowery channels in visual acuity of slow-cinema masters Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past Lives) and Ming-liang (Good Bye, Dragon Inn & Stray Dogs) while shaping the uneventful extended takes, which looks weird, ridiculous, whimsical as well as contemplative. I particularly loved the scenes C’s ghost encounters another ghost in the neighbor’s house. Without employing any visual manipulation, Lowery makes the encounter oddly funny as well as incredibly sad. The boxlike frame recently used in movies like Jauja, Post Tenbras Lux, etc heightens the poignancy and brings genuine lyricism to the passage of time.
A Ghost Story (92 minutes) would definitely appear to be pretentious, boring and silly experimental movie for large group of movie-goers. But it bestowed on me a deeply reflective and emotionally eloquent movie experience. Brooding mindset, minimal expectations and little suspension of belief might be the key ingredients to absorb David Lowery’s masterful existential fantasy/drama.