What comes after death? What is the purpose of life? Is there more to time than we can perceive? These are some of the grandest questions of the human condition, and to even tackle them in a film shows incredible ambition. To pose them, and provide emotionally resonant answers in the space of just 90 minutes, is evidence of a filmmaker working at the highest level, which is exactly the space David Lowery occupies with the mesmerising A Ghost Story. Reuniting with his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, Lowery’s work here eclipses the entirety of his back catalogue, as well the vast majority of the other films of 2017.
Affleck and Mara play a not quite unhappy or happy couple, known only as C and M, who are just about to move house when C (Affleck) dies in a car accident. This tragedy forces M (Mara) to stay in their shabby bungalow for far longer than anticipated, which in turn tethers C’s ghost to that plot of land, seemingly forever. Lowery initially focuses on the grief of the bereft M, as C’s ghost watches on, powerless to help her through her pain. In one astonishing sequence, we take C’s place as the invisible, static voyeur in a five minute single take as M eats an entire pie in real time.
When I first read about this scene as the Sundance reviews for A Ghost Story hit, I pre-emptively dismissed it as ridiculous, but in practice it’s devastatingly powerful. A painful, near-unwatchable display of self-flagellation through overconsumption, it asks a huge amount of Mara, who delivers an exceptional performance, bolstered by flawless, piercing sound design, with every noise of the kitchen ringing out with uncomfortably sharp clarity. That this moment works so well clearly gave Lowery a deserved shot of confidence, and it’s not long after this that he’s cheekily making us literally watch paint dry.
M has finally moved on from C as much as she can, and moves away from their formerly shared home, but before doing so, she leaves a note in a crack in the wall, painting over it to keep it secret. Accessing this message by slowly scratching through the paint becomes the ghost’s purpose in death, but the distractions of time and ongoing life prove to be mighty obstacles. The ghost’s appearance might seem a bit silly or even gimmicky, avoiding all special effects as it does by simply draping a sheet with eyeholes over Affleck, but in context the physicality that this provides to the spectre is beautiful.
It’s profoundly eerie at some points, but hilarious at others (standing awkwardly in the corner at Christmas, the ghost looks like a child who’s over-committed to a seasonal prank). The billowing sheet maintains the link between the spiritual and the visceral, and its collected grime shows the toll that the journey through the afterlife may take. Peace and closure are almost impossible to find in life, and Lowery presents us with the saddening idea that even death might not make things any easier.
Seeing through the eyes of a spirit makes for an utterly unique atmosphere, and Lowery’s framing of the film in an aspect ratio most reminiscent of old-school home movies keeps A Ghost Story completely intimate, even as the scope of its ambitions extend across the cosmos and even the fabric of space-time. Immediately after his death, C’s perception of time is pretty much normal, but soon we’re treated to Lowery’s vision of how time must feel to an eternal, but trapped and isolated, being. Different days happen simultaneously, and years pass in a single turn of the ghost’s head and to say any more would spoil the glorious discoveries that the film presents its audience with.
It’s heady, heavy stuff, with only the occasional break for a more conventional story. In his frustration and sadness, C briefly haunts a family, but even their fear subsides into a pity that they can’t explain as they sense his presence more clearly. After they move out, the home briefly becomes a party house, where a drunk would-be philosopher (Will Oldham) enrages C’s spirit with his talk of life’s pointlessness, provoking one of the rare displays of actual supernatural power.
But for the most part, this is not a ‘ghost story’ in the traditional sense of horror or hauntings, and the lightest relief comes from C’s occasional conversations with a more experienced ghost that lives over the road. Both are trapped in their respective homes, and neither is sure how to escape their undeath, but they can communicate telepathically when they look at one another. There’s a deep melancholy to these exchanges, but also something cheering in them, as Lowery has fun subtitling their minuscule gestures and inner thoughts. In a testament to how well-designed the whole film is, you can even parse the backstory of the other ghost through the appearance of its sheet alone, more colourful and kitsch than that of C.
A lot of what I’ve described above will sound insurmountably daffy or even boring for many, and you really do have to meet A Ghost Story at its level. Lowery makes no concessions for the unconvinced, but his complete sincerity makes for an unforgettable experience. Simply stunning both visually and thematically, this is a ferociously intelligent and original study of what it means to be human, and the strange balance between the concurrent enormity and tininess of sentient existence. Like your very own immobile, bed-sheet wearing spirit, A Ghost Story will stay with you for a long time to come.