There are certain films that just seem designed to challenge the viewer. It’s almost like the director wants to make it impossible for the audience to just enjoy themselves. This usually comes out of a good place – the director wants to make the audience physically think about and feel whatever it is he’s trying to say. Oftentimes when a director is that off-putting, it becomes impossible to recover as the audience just shuts down at the ostentatiousness in front of them. However, in rare instances, the film can surpass those impulses with a profound story that makes you think about what it all means. I’m not going to say David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a film for everyone, because good lord, it’s not. However, for those that are able to get past the intentionally disquieting directorial choices, you’ll be greeted with a reflective and philosophical take on life, love, time, space, and death.
C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a fairly content couple trying to sell their house because they believe it’s haunted. C is a struggling musician, and M is trying to connect with him again. C is killed tragically in a car accident, and he comes back as a ghost. And when I say he comes back as a ghost, I mean he literally comes back as a man wearing a sheet with eyeholes that cannot be seen by anyone. Stick with me. As he watches M try to cope with life after the death of her love, C watches and tries to understand time, space, death, and what it all means for humans just trying to get through life.
Look, I’m not gonna lie to you. This film is challenging to sit through. I’m not referring to the content or the message – I’m referring to the filmmaking deliberately trying to push you to your limits. For starters, there’s very little dialogue, and what dialogue does exist is either in a different language without subtitles or part of a massive monologue on the futility of existence. Then there’s the fact that to represent the idea of a “ghost” to the audience, Lowery literally throws a white sheet with eyeholes on top of Casey Affleck, and we don’t see his face for 85% of the movie (ok, maybe that’s not a bad thing, but still). That’s already begging for laughs in the middle of a super-serious drama. And if that wasn’t straining enough, this movie is slow. Like, really slow. Let me be clear: there is a scene meant to represent grief where Rooney Mara sits on the floor crying while sadly eating an entire pie until she throws up that is five and a half uninterrupted minutes long. I’m not kidding; I timed it. We watch this without a cut for five minutes and thirty seconds. And that’s not including her washing the dishes and looking at the pie longingly for a minute and a half before this. This was the point where someone in the theater walked out and never returned. It’s quiet, ridiculous, and painfully long.
However, the sheer audacity of that silence is what makes this film so enlightening. This is a movie that’s quiet and meditative in a way most films aren’t. It’s using its prolonged silence to force the audience to reflect on the questions they’re asking, and it’s using those long takes to reflect the uncut nature of life. Let’s look at that pie scene again. The first thought that crosses your mind during that scene is, “Jesus Christ, are they going to make us watch her eat an entire pie without cutting away?” which leads to “Well, I guess all humans tend to overeat when they grieve. Why do humans do that?” which leads to “Why do we grieve at all, if everyone we know is going to die like that?” It’s a series of questions all borne out of the most painful scene in any movie, ever. As the film goes on, these long takes are broken up with a series of smaller parables exploring everything humans strive to understand, but never will. Sequences of Mara repeating the same actions as she leaves the house everyday reflect the passage of time. Quick cuts from a joyful young girl to a dead little girl to a skeleton remind us that we will all die and be forgotten someday, no matter what we do. The full circle effect of a couple fighting, kissing, relaxing and more make us think about what role love plays in this whole crazy existence. Sequences of fiery debate over moving makes us question why we grow attached to physical spaces that we will one day have to leave. And several images of space remind us that in the grand scheme of things, we are one fraction of a marble on the floor of the infinite void that is our universe. These are heavy questions with deep, disturbing, impossible answers, and Lowery wants us to explore all of them during the silence that he leaves for us, and the pie he’s cooked for us.
What really sells this movie, however, is the filmmaking. For such a low-budget, small-time indie film, every single aspect of the production has brought its a-game. The film uses an aspect ration of 1:33:1, which creates a gorgeous box-like effect resembling a photograph, immediately making the connection to memories and nostalgia, as well as creating a claustrophobic environment for which our protagonist will be trapped for his entire runtime, i.e. eternity. The film is flawlessly edited, depending on long takes early on that resemble the uncut nature of real life, be it eating a pie or cuddling with your wife (this graciously only lasts three minutes, tops), before embracing short scenes and montages to convey the passage of time in the ghost world, with several years passing in the blink of an eye. It’s one of the most beautifully edited films I’ve seen, and I give kudos to David Lowery (pulling double duty) for making me say that in a film that features a nearly-needless seven minute scene of eating pie. Speaking of Lowery, I give him massive props for lining the bookshelves with the perfect novels to reflect the themes of the movie, from Love in the Time of Cholera, a book about dying, and Nietzsche, whose thoughts are not only represented in the film’s existential nihilism (even while it seems to refute it) and the greatest portrayal of the Eternal Return ever put on film (suck it, True Detective). And while the film makes heavy use of its silence throughout, it is always a welcome return whenever Daniel Hart’s score returns. It’s truly haunting and meditative, and his song “I Get Overwhelmed” is among the most powerful movie songs of all time.
I really don’t know how much I can praise the cast in this film, as they’re sort of just pawns in the greater ideas Lowery is playing with. I can tell you that Mara is simple stunning, and if she hadn’t already cemented herself as the greatest actress of her generation, she really makes a case for it here. Affleck is good in a fairly physical role, although the question remains about how much we can praise a performance that’s simply just a man under a sheet walking around sadly. Personally, I think there’s something to be said for the way he can physically portray grief, but I’ll leave that up for debate. Outside of the main two, the best performance comes from musician Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, who delivers an incredible monologue on humanity’s place in the world, why we struggle, and why we create art. Some may find it a bit too on-the-nose or pretentious, but I thought it was absolutely beautiful and one of the best scenes of the year. Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, that girl at the party is Ke$ha, she does appear while a Ke$ha song is playing, and she is indeed good as the film’s sole attempt at comic relief. God knows we need it.
David Lowery has truly created in a film that follows in the footsteps of Tarkovsky, Wenders, and Lynch. He’s using lingering long takes, simplistic storytelling, and aggressively profound storytelling to explore the big ideas and themes that we long to understand. Yes, it’s a film about a ghost dressed in a bed sheet watching his girlfriend eat pie for seven minutes, but it’s also a film that makes us think about the reason we even get out of bed in the morning in the face of an uncaring universe. I won’t blame you if you get up and leave when trying to see this film. I understand it’s not for everyone. But it was for me. I personally believe that there are only four types of films that people desire to make: films that educate you, films that entertain you, films that make you think, and films that make you feel. I think that Lowery wants this film to fall in between those last two on the Venn diagram. I can’t say I made it all the way there in the “feel” category. However, this film made me think in a way few films have before. And any film that can do that is truly great in my book.