In a filmgoing market flooded with headache-inducing action flicks and facepalm-worthy rom-coms, when filmmakers go wild over the infinite possibilities of CGI (most of which possibilities are bad), the retro style of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) feels downright iconoclastic. It’s shot with elegance, grace, and design, yet it still preserves a sense of spontaneity and associative logic thanks to some on-set editing by Shane Carruth, of Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013) fame. Lowery is a student of Terrence Malick, and given the commonalities among the styles of these three, and a thematic continuity between them and Richard Linklater, I’m ready to declare a new Texan school of filmmaking. Who’s with me?
Casey Affleck plays a guy, labeled C in the credits, who dies and comes back as a guy-in-a-sheet ghost. The costume at first seems ridiculous, but when you see the flowing majesty of its full length, it takes on a regal melancholy very much befitting an entity that discovers what awaits us after death and finds it underwhelming. His widow, M, is played by Rooney Mara, and both actors hit the sweet spot between underacting and overacting, each from a different direction: Mara toning it down, Affleck hamming it up (or as much as he can from under that sheet). Mara especially knocks it out of the park with the famous pie-eating one-shot, in which her character literally gorges herself on her grief. Eventually, M moves on and moves out, but C continues to haunt their house, wanting so badly to read a message she’s hidden in the wall that he breaks time itself.
The acting is superb; more astoundingly, the filmmaking craft is perfect. Long takes and minimal editing make absence and longing visceral experiences; swooping camerawork and spinning scene transitions blur the lines of temporality and convey what it feels like to be present but not alive. The 1.33 aspect ratio (VHS standard) and rounded frame corners color the film with a staged, fabulist nostalgia that makes the film more real by turning it into a myth. And the soundtrack is intimately detailed, magnifying every bump and creak of the house that the ghost haunts for eternity and beyond.
Having said all that, I think the film could’ve been looser. The imperative of the plot is too strong; as it stands, the film doesn’t fully integrate its two themes of ghost-temporality and memory-existence. Ideally, the notion that a ghost’s temporality revolves around, or is always tinged by, its lasting memories should be captured in one and the same series of shots and sequences, but A Ghost Story forgets M throughout its middle section; by the time C jumps from the top of the office building that the house has become, the film has regressed to an allegorical eulogy for the cultural memory of place. This is a troubling conclusion, because the tension between a fixed sense of place and the feeling of being stuck there is the only thing the couple fight about. But the film sides with C and elides over how the memory of their relationship haunts him; hence, none of the traveling-through-time parts are as moving as when C watches M eat that pie, or when C watches M leave for work every morning (a montage that still gives me goosebumps), or when C watches earlier-temporality C watch M leave for work every morning. Lowery doesn’t yet realize that the emotional heart of the film is not spatial but temporal, not the fact of hauntedness but the haunting itself: the nostalgic irony of time, of experiences taken for granted because you don’t understand how not to take them for granted until you see them through the one-way mirror of death. Has Lowery never read Our Town?
The recurring themes Lowery brings up in interviews make it seem like he’s going through a perpetual existential crisis. A Ghost Story may have exorcised some of his ghosts, as well as the ghost of C, but it’s not really the story of a ghost. Not even the sheet can help with that.