'A Ghost Story': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Haunting, literally.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara reunite with their 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' director David Lowery in a poetic meditation on time, memory and spiritual connection that is utterly true to its title.

 

There's no more childlike representation of a spectral presence than a figure draped in a white bed-sheet with cutout holes for eyes. So it initially seems a playfully low-tech choice that in David Lowery's strange and beguiling A Ghost Story, such a figure returns from death to keep watch like a sentinel over the life he once lived and the home he once loved. What's more remarkable is the unsettling power that unsophisticated image builds as the film develops into a sorrowful contemplation of lingering connections. This melancholy mood piece won't be for everyone, but distributor A24 should be able to cultivate an admiring niche audience.

The movie opens with a quote from the Virginia Woolf short story A Haunted House: "Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting." But the opposite also applies to this chronicle of a mostly benign haunting, in which inter-dimensional doors remain forever open. The film's sense of time and space — past, present and future — grows steadily more elastic, porous, infinite.

The micro-budget project was shot quickly and quietly right after Lowery completed post on Pete's Dragon for Disney. The writer-director reunited his principal actors from Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, bringing his handmade approach to a skeletal script laced with long interludes of silence and stillness.

Lowery has acknowledged the slow-cinema model of Asian directors Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul as an influence, evident in the film's dreamy solemnity. The cinematic photographs of Gregory Crewdson were another key frame of reference, and the look of the movie is steeped in Americana, from the house in semi-rural Texas that serves as the principal location to a late interlude depicting the encounter of an early-settler family with Native Americans.

Affleck and Mara play an unnamed couple in disagreement over whether or not to uproot. In a few brief shots and snippets of dialogue, we observe that the wife favors a move to somewhere more modern and less isolated, while her husband feels a strong attachment to their current home, a nondescript single-story property that came with an old piano. A sudden clang on the keyboard during the night disturbs the couple's sleep, but otherwise there's no foreshadowing of the sudden death of Affleck's character, a songwriter, early in the movie.

After a moment alone with her husband at the morgue, the wife covers the body, and the intensity with which Andrew Droz Palermo's camera remains trained on that image — together with the film's title — primes us to wait for the corpse to stir. Still, when the deceased figure sits up, draped in a sheet, steps off the gurney and begins wandering the hospital corridors, the effect is startling. Even more transfixing is the sight of the shrouded body walking across open fields and returning to the house, where the deceased husband watches his widow grieve. One of the more unusual steps in this process will make anyone who ever delivered a pie to the bereaved think twice about that well-meaning gesture.

The sense of time passing is hypnotic, and the image of the ghost, wounded and watching, unable to communicate or offer comfort, becomes more eerie and beautiful the longer we observe it. A second ghost, in a neighboring house, waves through the window, and the two specters exchange minimal information via gesture, suggesting a parallel world of spirits unable to let go of their physical lives.

Daniel Hart's rich score, which includes a tender song written by Affleck's character, is dominated by mournful strings, which accelerate and grow more agitated as the dead husband becomes distressed. The first instance is when a man accompanies Mara's character home, prompting warning flickers of paranormal activity.

Later, after she packs up and moves, a young Hispanic single mother settles in with her two kids, one of whom is particularly receptive to the otherworldly presence. The ghost's anger at the loss of his home is formidable, but even when dishes start flying, the director makes it clear he has minimal interest in standard horror tropes.

Lowery edits the minimalist narrative with a languid flow that mirrors the ghost's movements to mesmerizing effect. The latter half of the film becomes increasingly abstract, traveling forward in time to find the location densely built up into towering corporate offices, and then back to early settler days. Despite the absence in the central figure of facial expressiveness, language and even physicality to a great degree, Lowery's ability to convey a palpable sense of the ghost's desolation is extraordinary. Part of the credit goes also to designer Annell Brodeur's costume, which is shaped and weighted in subtle ways that suggest emotional, spiritual and physical burdens.

A midpoint interlude, during which the house becomes the scene for a noisy party of presumably illegal squatters, is mildly jarring amid so much quiet. That's largely due to the abundance of dialogue, much of it from a cosmic prognosticator holding court at the kitchen table, played by Will Oldham, aka singer Bonnie "Prince" Billy. But his verbose thoughts about private and public legacy, and what, if anything, will outlast the universe, add to the sense of big, unanswerable questions floating about.

While Affleck and Mara both are onscreen (at least visibly, in Affleck's case) for limited stretches, their performances resonate. Lowery's material here is audaciously spare compared to the more conventionally plotted Ain't Them Bodies Saints, but his skills as a visual storyteller arguably are put to more arresting use.

The riveting intimacy of A Ghost Story is enhanced by the choice to shoot in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio (with the corners rounded off like an old home movie) and stick largely to measured, graceful camera movement. The film acquires unexpected poignancy in its final scenes, which take us back to the couple alive and happy at the beginning, filling in pieces of the mysterious puzzle while at the same time departing from traditional concepts of the spirit world in ways that are as spooky as they are oddly soothing.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Distributor: A24
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez, Will Oldham
Production companies: Sailor Bear, Zero Trans Fat Productions, Ideaman Studios, Scared Sheetless
Director-screenwriter: David Lowery
Producers: Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Adam Donaghey
Executive producer: David Maddox
Director of photography: Andrew Droz Palermo
Production designers: Jade Healy, Tom Walker
Costume designer: Annell Brodeur
Music: Daniel Hart, John Congleton
Editor: David Lowery
Casting: Tisha Blood, Matthew Taylor
Sales: A24

90 minutes.

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