Toying with the traditional iconography associated with movies about restless spirits and the places they haunt, David Lowery’s materialistically mischievous, and altogether mesmerizing A Ghost Story (2017) does something very different as far as cinematic hauntings go.
Reuniting with his cast from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), A Ghost Story’s prologue introduces us to a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. We intentionally never learn too much about the two (not even their names) beyond only the broadest of strokes; he wants to stay in their newly acquired ranch-style bungalow and she wants to move out of it.
After becoming fleetingly familiar with the rhythms of their marriage and some snapshots of their biography, an offscreen car crash robs the man of his life and he’s soon a specter, draped only in a hospital sheet, haunting (though unable to interact much at all) his home and his wife. After a time, his grief-stricken bride finds the fortitude to leave their former abode and go on, and he cannot. But, as the title of the film suggests, the story is his and so we experience his forsaken and companionless isolation.
An offbeat ghost story succinctly coupled with an unreadable one about love that, through obfuscation is all about attachment, memory, and longing, A Ghost Story is destined to resonate with niche audiences.
The following list examines a number of reasons why this lyrical ode to the living and the dead will be adored, discussed, and lauded with cult-like adoration for years to come.
8. The oddball appearance of the protagonist
No doubt the biggest and most obvious act of artifice the film takes is in the presentation of the eponymous character. The ghost is dressed throughout the entire film as if he were a child’s Halloween costume; a white sheet with DIY eyeholes. If the viewer can’t get past this goofy visage the film won’t work for them as it threatens to capsize the whole shebang into the tepid waters of facetious, oversweet parody.
By making our hero appear more than a little ridiculous and yet entirely existent, his ineffectual impotence makes him pained and poignant. He may only be minimalist in his gestures and intimations but his cartoonishly melancholy and frequently enigmatic canter gives him an efficacy that can’t be ignored. Part mirror, and perhaps part simulacrum for the audience’s own hopes and fears about amity, mortality, time, and much more, this is a gambit that pays rich dividends for audiences willing to ante up.
7. Told mostly from the ghost’s point of view
The film is told predominantly from the perspective of the ghost, who by no fault of his own (unless indeed the mysterious car crash that killed him was his fault) is a largely passive observer of his afterlife. In the same way that the audience cannot impact the film by watching it, he too is powerless for most of his doomed hereafter.
A Ghost Story imagines why someone’s spirit might linger in a certain and very specific place and what it might mean to lodge outside of time; watching life without being a part of it. Miraculously it is this, a strangely persuasive and very inspired vision that maybe the one doing the haunting will be the one who is truly haunted.
6. Daniel Hart’s musical score
Airy, beautiful, and suitably eerie, the musical score for A Ghost Story marks the fourth and so far finest collaboration between David Lowery and composer/musician Daniel Hart (after Saint Nick , Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  and Pete’s Dragon ). Outside of his impressive work with Lowery, Hart is perhaps best known for his contributions as a violinist playing with celebrated acts like Broken Social Scene, the Polyphonic Spree, and St. Vincent.
Essential to the narrative of A Ghost Story is that the protagonist, when he was alive, was a musician, and the music he was making before his road accident is one of several aural cinematic devices that ties the character to a time and place as he tried to articulate with his music some of the sentiments and esteem he felt for his wife and their shared life. Almost an act of piety and purification, his performance of “I Get Overwhelmed” wields a raw power as well as an astonishing accompaniment for one of the film’s heady, montage-addled crescendos.
The rest of the film’s soundtrack reaches similarly impressive peaks with a mingling of calm, aching, and fittingly delicate arrangements. So much of the film’s radiant and wistful tremor is owed to how wonderfully moving and provoking Hart’s music is.
5. Rooney Mara’s brave performance
Mara’s prolific career has been punctuated with many brilliant performances in high profile projects, including two very well-received films from David Fincher (2010’s The Social Network and 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and perhaps her career peak (for now) in Todd Haynes’ universally adored romantic period drama Carol (2015), in which she garnered Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and SAG nominations as well as a Best Actress Award at Cannes. So it’s somewhat surprising that in A Ghost Story, her second outing with Lowery (who no doubt wrote the role with her in mind), her role is one of small understatements, and shockingly effective nuance.
Contained, inscrutable, and at times incredibly passive, Mara’s performance very nearly equals her besheeted male costar’s. When she finds him dead, for instance, laid out on a hospital gurney, it’s a challenge to say that little more than a flicker of feeling touches her eyes or furrows her brow. And yet, a little while later we see her react in a fit of self-punishment and spectacle as she devours an entire pie (more on this scene further down the list), and the result of his bared moment is one the viewer can share with her; of being gutted.
Hemmed in, melancholic, and unadorned, Mara’s floating restraint and equanimity shows a complex portrayal that matches with the gradually engrossing, often deliberately glacial-paced proceedings in this obsessive arthouse exploration. She gets under your skin and then, like vapor, or yes, like an addled and angry spirit, she’s gone.
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