When looking at the last three feature films from writer/director David Lowery you’re immediately struck by how dramatically different one movie is from another – 2013’s romantic crime thriller “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”, last year’s Disney fantasy adventure “Pete’s Dragon”, and now his latest film, a meditative supernatural drama “A Ghost Story”.
Lowery’s dabbling in new areas of cinema makes sense. Throughout his time in filmmaking he has worn many hats – writer, director, editor, cinematographer, producer, and even actor among other things. So it’s no surprise seeing him try something new. But “A Ghost Story” (which he writes, directs, and edits) is so unique and, quite frankly, unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.
As is always the case, the less you know about the film the better, but it rings especially true here. Still it should be said that “A Ghost Story” flips any genre norm on its head. There is nothing conventional or routine about it. Some are certain to check out before it’s done. Lowery is okay with that. In an interview with Yahoo! Movies, he stated that he hopes audiences will stick with it, but knows some will not. Thankfully it didn’t influence his creative choices otherwise “A Ghost Story” wouldn’t be the daring, profound experience it is.
The film reunites Lowery with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”). We never know the names of their characters, only that they are a husband and wife living in a modest suburban home. Their lives are shattered when Affleck’s character is killed in a car wreck. We wakes up as an invisible white-sheeted ghost and returns to his home. There he observes Mara’s character navigate through her various stages of grief.
Mara’s work here is quiet but astounding. It’s light on dialogue, soulful and evocative. Lowery often puts his camera in the observer’s role, leaving it on her through long extended takes. Many times the ghost stands silently in the background watching her every move and emotion. Throughout these scenes the film’s mood steadily grows heavier. Yet it’s not without humor. The absurdity of the ghost costume (a long white sheet with two cut-out eyeholes) is an intentional move. Lowery has described humor as a great “gateway emotion”. The costume is a wacky but welcomed entry point.
This is also where Lowery begins to play around with time, something that becomes more pronounced as the story progresses. We see it through the unfolding narrative but also in the incredibly clever construction of individual scenes. It’s even relayed through some aesthetic choices. For example the entire film is presented like a vintage snapshot – squared borders with rounded edges. The framing is reminiscent of something pulled out of time.
Around the midway point the film makes a notable but fluid shift that challenges the audience on an entirely different level. The mournful, tragic mood doesn’t go away, but Lowery expands his interest beyond a simple exploration of love and loss. We are never spoon fed the meaning to everything we see. Instead we’re prodded to react to and interpret the movie for ourselves. As we do, the haunting, meditative atmosphere remains with the exception of one scene, a half-drunken nihilistic party lecture. It is the single longest sequence of dialogue in the entire film. Unfortunately it pulled me out of the movie’s carefully maintained tone. But only briefly.
And then you have Daniel Hart’s fabulous score. It’s easily my favorite of the year so far. There are many moments where Lowery leans heavily on the music and often puts it in the place of dialogue. It’s a brilliant composition of emotions that ranges from eerie and haunting to tranquil and calming. Hart has worked with Lowery on his previous two films and their incredible chemistry is beyond question.
“A Ghost Story” isn’t for everyone and I’ll be interested to see how people react. I was under its spell from the start and found it to be both beautiful and tragic. Its story is patient and personal; its presentation audacious and impressionistic. And I was captivated by David Lowery’s unwillingness to embrace our expectations. This is the story he wanted to tell and it turns out to be one of the year’s biggest surprises and delights.
VERDICT 4.5 STARS