Amidst the usual controversy and shenanigans, one of the big critical hits of Sundance 2017 was David Lowery’s, A Ghost Story. Clandestinely produced, and revealed to the public only after its completion, secrecy was maintained despite leading roles for top-drawer talent, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Financed with the proceeds from his previous film, Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story represents Lowery’s return to independent filmmaking.
I attended the screening at the Chicago Critics’ Film Festival. Prior to the screening, Lowery delivered a pre-recorded message imploring the audience to approach his film with an open mind. We might, he acknowledged, know a few things – that it’s about someone dying and becoming a ghost and that ghost wears a sheet – but hoped we’d otherwise assume nothing and allow the film to dictate its own tone. It’s a fair request. The film is, after all, almost entirely tone, and it’s easy to be won over early on.
There’s plenty to praise in A Ghost Story on the production side. Affleck and Mara, for the comparatively short amount of time they spend on screen, are engaging leads. Their chemistry communicates a romance that is warm but past the incandescent early stages. Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is intoxicating, using sepia-tones and careful composition within the squarer Academy Ratio frame to evoke a wistful Americana, solidified by the film’s humble locations. Concerning visual composition, the corners of the frame are rounded, harking again to older, analogue photographic formats. Interesting touches abound and load the bases during the film’s opening passages, promising many possible paths.
Considering the ethereal titular character, the plot is appropriately short on concrete substance. A young couple’s relationship is ended by the man’s untimely death. He returns as a ghost, although such labels are never applied within the film. During this phase of his existence a sheet obscures his form, embracing the basest stereotype of “ghost-ness”, so that the audience might quickly look past the conceit. He returns to his home to witness his wife grieve, recover, and depart. But he remains bound to the house even as new inhabitants arrive. Wordlessly standing, invisible to all but the audience, the ghost has no discernible motive. As time passes, so too do any facets that might qualify him as “human”. Flashbacks suggest deficiencies in the couple’s seemingly ideal relationship. Are these the ghost’s recollections? Is it regret that keeps his soul tethered to this place? Perhaps, although as time rolls on, in growing leaps and bounds, the ghost’s unwavering vigil foregrounds a grander transience.
Lowery is right to warn us against preconceptions. The film’s absurdly literal title assures us of, well, a ghost story, but it has no interest in horror cinema’s spine-tingling chills. There’s potency to films that convene elements of genre cinema but refuse to adhere to their familiar format. For example, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris embraces science-fiction but has always struck me as an unheralded horror film. The camera acts as the protagonist’s eye, slowly and methodically scanning the environment, passing his vulnerability and anxiety directly through to the audience. The nature of Solaris’ story posits that absolutely anything could be revealed during the camera’s survey. There is literally nothing that could not enter the frame and that possibility leaves the viewer’s imagination to work in feverous loops. A Ghost Story also relies on long, uninterrupted passages that drip with limitless potent. Again, anything could happen, and whether it does or does not, uncertainty is cultivated in the spectator. But, while there’s tension there, there comes a point that you start to suspect “The Unknown” might actually be rudderless meandering. For me, this suspicion crept in roughly one third of the way into an uninterrupted, maybe seven minute long shot of Rooney Mara mournfully scarfing a pie.
Alas, once a thesis emerges, it feels like a starting point rather than a destination. A romantic relationship at a point of friction and how perception colors decisions and regret is a great point to kick off a project. But Lowery spends the whole thing poised on the emergency brake, assuming the formal daring of subsuming a star like Casey Affleck into a mute sheet translates into serious interrogation. As the ghost silently oversees his widow’s grief it’s a portrait of a man indulgently wondering how people might react to his death rather than a clued-in depiction of actual grief. Such discourse is a rite of passage for adolescents but reads as rank navel-gazing beyond that.
Unfortunately, A Ghost Story’s problems don’t end there, at the starting line of the race towards what would have been a more interesting film. Lowery apparently isn’t comfortable just being bland, but is also discomfited by the thought that audiences might be able to do some work of their own. So he intrudes with, “So you see…” interjections that boom within the film’s otherwise whisper-soft tone. Having little to say is a common problem. Stopping everything to specifically exhibit that deficiency is not a solution. If originally I felt trapped in a glacial Philosophy 101 class, these outbursts mimic a cocky freshman explaining the curriculum back to me. That irritating freshman is soon made flesh in a torturous tract involving a party-goer waxing lyrical about the existential quandary of humanity’s quest for purpose. He delivers this spiel to a table of guests, presumably all too polite to just get up and leave. As a member of the theater audience, I felt their pain. The ghost also stood by silently. Being bound in space never seemed a more horrible burden.
The result of this combination of empty space and hand-holding is a film that is less rumination on humanity and more Lowery sublimating his reading recommendations into movie form. That needn’t be an issue if you’ve got a specific insight into a text, or you’re Jean-Luc Godard and your manic juxtapositions synthesize entirely new commentary, but Lowery is just crudely abridging someone else’s chapter. I didn’t realize how literal a warning sign it was at the time, but the film’s first bout of poltergeist action brings a book by Nietzsche crashing to the floor. Before you can say, ‘Eternal Recurrence’, we really no longer have to think about the matter, and beyond clumsily invoking the idea, the film has nothing to add either.
The film aims for minimalism but is instead minimal- slight and insufficient. Its stillness is disarmed, dispersing mystery and revealing a dearth of verisimilitude. It’s disappointing considering the caliber of ingredients collected. That being said, it is not inconceivable that some will be won over by the film’s beautiful aesthetic. As aggrieved as I was by its lack of nuance and blunt-force didacticism, they come to the fore only a few times within the larger work. Yes, the rest is listless thanks to its undercooked raison d'être, but it may be possible for others to look past those outbursts and just absorb the wonderful sights and sounds. I can imagine, several years down the line, I will be cornered at a party by someone I have nothing in common with and, when polite small-talk reveals that I like movies, they will mention how this one changed their life. Perhaps at that moment I will finally grasp the grim torture of existence, and somewhere, Lowery will transcend this mortal realm.