Haunting has very rarely interested me in film. A spirit slamming a door or knocking some books off a shelf bores me rather than thrills or terrifies me. I would not have minded going my whole life not seeing another haunted house film. But then David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) has to come along and totally upend the haunted house story. He even manages to take the image of a white sheet with cutout eyes ghost and make it a mascot of melancholy. A Ghost Story takes the what could have been simple premise of a spirit haunting his grieving lover but expands it to encompass how we leave our marks on history, how certain places will always hold us back, and how time warps and affects our experiences.
Lowery gets the Ain’t Them Bodies Saints band back together with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as an unnamed couple living in a small house, packing up their stuff to move out soon. One day, Affleck dies in a car wreck just outside their home. After Mara identifies his body at the hospital and covers his face with a sheet, he sits up at attention, covered in the sheet with black, cutout eyes and makes his way back to their home. If you think this is where The Righteous Brothers kick in, you will extremely disappointed. What begins as an observation of grieving by its cause, complete with a five or so minute scene of Rooney Mara sad-eating a pie, quietly shows itself to be much more concerned with not just the memory of a person but how the space you occupy evokes a memory of a person or experience.
Shot 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo perfectly reflect the timelessness of the story with how the film looks. A Ghost Story also is filled with multi-minute long takes and visual-effects enhanced montages to not only disorient you with the passage time but to constantly remind you how crushing it can be while you are in it. The long takes will no doubt try some people’s patience, as it did to the person sitting two seats away from me during the aforementioned pie eating scene, but each shot precisely serves exactly what it needs to and escapes what could be seen as a tonal exercise into something truly emotionally poignant.
When it comes to acting without words, Rooney Mara is one of the best we currently have, and her dealing with this loss, trying to find ways of moving on, and all the contradictions that can conjure up is fascinating to watch. The titular ghost is the lead here, though, and it’s another physical triumph of total stillness, making him sorrowful and even a bit creepy. I don’t know if Casey Affleck is the actual person under the bed sheet, but whoever it is moves wonderfully. The design of the ghost, with a sheet that dirties and tatters as time passes and eye holes perpetually looking sad and lost, is a triumph. Sure, you initially giggle when you see it walking through the aisles of the hospital, but any preconceived notions you had about this iconic image melts away rather quickly.
Next to the ghost and the house, the third star here is composer Daniel Hart, whose music not only colors every emotion Lowery tries to get at perfectly but is integral to how people relate to one another and can evoke memory. Affleck’s character is a musician, and Hart’s compositions for the character are gorgeous pieces, and they are smartly not incorporated to evoke a cheap sentiment, like a pop song two people bonded over when they first met and then can be used as a signifier of their love throughout the rest of the film. Lowery, who works as his own editor, and Hart perfectly compliment each other on how the cuts affect the music and vice-versa.
A Ghost Story is David Lowery’s boldest and best film to date. He is rapidly becoming one of my favorite working directors, as I love everything of his I’ve seen (Pete’s Dragon was on my top ten of 2016). I am sure it will test some people’s patience, but the film’s odd, quiet feel gripped me from the opening frame. See it in a theater and be enveloped by its beauty and overwhelmed in Daniel Hart’s music. I have seen quite a few movies here at Sundance since this, and I cannot stop thinking about it. Finally, there is a new haunted house movie out there that I love.
Categories: Film Festival Reviews