David Lowery has become one of my favorite up-and-coming directors. I remember enjoying his art house western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), but he really earned my interest with his decision to direct a Disney children’s movie, Pete’s Dragon (2016). Lowery executed a potentially soulless mission with care and grace. He didn’t sell-out, Disney bought-in. And he maintained a unique vision and adapted his sensibilities to a beast outside himself. It wasn’t a Disney film that happened to be directed by David Lowery, or a David Lowery film that happened to be produced by Disney, but a wonderfully executed symbiosis.
With A Ghost Story, Lowery confirms that his skill-set and perspective is powerful no matter the gift-wrap it’s presented in. Set entirely on a plot of land in Texas, mostly in a suburban house, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) live a mundane middle class life. The couple plans on moving somewhere else, although C protests. He loves their home and doesn’t want to leave. Then C dies. At the morgue M reflects on her lover’s hollow remains. She places a sheet over his face, and walks away. C eventually gets up, becoming the sheet, and returns to the house. He observes M as she grieves. As time goes on C remains in the house.
A Ghost Story, categorically, sits squarely between indie films and avant garde cinema.
“Indie films” like Pulp Fiction, Little Miss Sunshine, Frances Ha, and anything produced by the Duplass Brothers generally follow the same base rules as mainstream Hollywood, especially in regards to character and (more or less) narrative structure. (Pulp Fiction is nonlinear, but each segment is it’s own contained, traditionally structured story.)
Then there are avant garde films, a large step away from mainstream indie. Movies like Hollis Frampton’s Lemon, a 7 minute, single shot, truly silent film about the way light wraps around a lemon. An example of an avant garde film distributed through mainstream channels would be Terrence Mallick’s (a clear inspiration for David Lowery) The Tree Of Life, a film that like A Ghost Story conflates intimate domestic life with the epic existential concepts. These films don’t have stories, they don’t develop characters. They are about concepts, expressed visually with moving images.
Aesthetically, formally, and tonally A Ghost Story feels like an avant garde film.
However it uses these aesthetics to tell a traditional story, (with a clear beginning with an inciting incident, a middle with rising action building to a climax, and an ending with a resolution) and it expresses a succinct and powerful message.
Lowery’s use of character takes a clear page out of Mallick’s book. C and M are not “fully developed.” We don’t know their past, we have little sense of how they operate in their daily lives. We only see them in the context of their domestic relationship. As written these are more archetypes than characters, broad representations of theme: C is attachment, at first to the house the couple plans to move out of, then to the mortal realm. M is forward movement, progress. She wants to move out of the house, when C dies she eventually moves on. Lowery, in my opinion, makes more effective use of these gestural characters than Mallick, by planting them firmly in a coherent narrative. He exploits the most universal characterless narrative: the passage of time. The story is time, something we need hardly any contextualization to understand. The little information we are given about these people is enough. It also helps that Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck’s naturalistic performances help every aching emotion ring absolutely true.
The film is no less poetic for this clarity. Lowery’s formal choices are unique and work perfectly together. The camera is obsessed with late afternoon, though it often avoids the gold of the magic hour in favor of the soft navy shade. It’s the light you experience when the sun has just about gone down but the sky is still bright. This low contrast combined with the 4:3 aspect ratio, with rounded corners, makes the film resemble an old photograph. The tasteful use of steadicam embraces the ghost’s floating point of view.
The editing choices explore the theme of time. The opening scene repeatedly fades to black, then fades back to the same shot of C and M lying on the couch. This seems to simulate the hazy, elongated sense of time when reluctantly drifting to sleep. In one sequence a shot holds as M walks out the front door. Then she walks out again, and again. It’s unclear if these events happen days, weeks, or months apart. The editing represents everything from minutes to decades as equal units of time. The film transitions between periods seamlessly, relying only on the changing mise-en-scène to communicate how much time has passed.
Beautifully crafted and thoughtfully conceived, A Ghost Story is an exciting entry into Lowery’s growing body of work. It’s earnestness grounds its cosmic existentialism into something powerfully relatable. See highly recommend you this movie in theaters.
10 bedsheets out of 10 “I’m-sorry-your-boyfriend-died” pies.