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Review: A Ghost Story

October 9, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The image of a person dressed as a ghost wearing a white bed sheet with cutout holes for eyes could easily be fodder for laughs or cheap scares, recalling a child’s simple Halloween costume.  But this image is used in ways much more sombre and sorrowful than that in A Ghost Story, a unique and quietly devastating film that explores universal themes of grief and the passage of time.

The film tells the story of C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a young couple who are living in an old house on a quiet suburban street.  When C dies, he returns to the house as a ghost, clad in a white sheet.  He watches over M as she mourns him and then eventually sells the house, and he stays there as other people move in, forced into passive observance and helpless to stop time from moving forward right in front of his eyes.

Directed by David Lowery, who shot the film under the radar last year after finishing his work on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story is a quiet and contemplative film that feels entirely personal to the filmmaker.  The special effects were done in camera, with the help of a magician on set, and the film has a home movie quality that makes it feel intimate and personal.  The film is framed in a square with rounded corners, to give it the look of an old polaroid photograph, with the sparse compositions of many of the scenes taking on a haunting quality as the ghost lingers silently in the background or at the corners of the frame.

Some scenes stretch on for minutes at a time – like an almost uncomfortably languid single take where M stress eats an entire pie as C watches over her – while others go by in a flash, meant to symbolize the way that time moves slower when we are young, before speeding up as we get older.  Through this, A Ghost Story becomes a moving look at the passage of time, the evolving repercussions of the connections we make, and the memories that are made and the things that are forgotten along the way.

Despite being covered by a sheet for much of the running time and portraying a character who is unable to speak, Casey Affleck is able to affectively convey his character’s grief, through his hunched shoulders or a slow turn of his head, with the deep black eye holes of his costume suggesting a constantly longing stare.  It’s a fascinating performance, and Casey Affleck is able to express so much feeling through his body language, without the aid of facial expressions or dialogue.  Much of the film unfolds quietly and wordlessly, carried by Daniel Hart’s ethereal music and soundscapes.

This approach makes a several minute monologue that is delivered by a party guest (Will Oldham) partway through the film stand out even more.  Lasting for several minutes, it’s an enthralling, moving and beautifully written extended scene that is powerfully performed by Will Oldham, touching on the immensity of the universe, how time passes us by and the legacies that we leave behind after death, both through our children and the art that we create.  This influx of dialogue after so many wordless scenes is almost startling, which allows the monologue to leave a lasting impact, giving voice to the themes that are being conveyed visually in the film.

This is a film that forces us to confront painful emotions, with an almost unbearable sadness to it that can be depressing, but it’s also a wholly unique work that, at its best, is able to powerfully convey the feeling of watching life go by.  This is an existential journey as much as it is an emotional one, that is carried by the lingering power of its simple but haunting images, and it’s hard to stop thinking about for days after watching it.

A Ghost Story is now available on iTunes, and was released on Blu-ray and DVD last week.

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