David Lowery’s supernatural drama is a complex study of loss, re-working what many would expect from the genre in its reversal of the living being haunted by the dead, to the dead being haunted by not just the living, but also, themselves.
C (Casey Affleck) is tragically killed in a car accident outside the home he shares with his wife M (Rooney Mara). Resurrected as a ghost in the hospital morgue, C returns to the home of his grieving wife to spectate the vast existence that takes place within the walls of a home in which he once held a life so dear.
A Ghost Story is a tender reflection on life, death and mortality that is so expertly crafted that it feels as if made by the deceased as a swansong to a loved one that will never be felt again. C becomes a spectral spectator to the suffering that haunts his wife, and through a series of long takes that perfectly encapsulate a deep depression, the audience gains an impeccable understanding of how it must be to watch a loved one confront such traumatic mourning. The immovable presence of the camera provides shots of M that are constructed in such a way as to highlight her loneliness and isolation – the viewer becomes the bed-sheet condemned ghost and to watch Mara’s quiet and thoughtful character silently grapple with such immense loss is heart-wrenching but is conveyed intelligently and is remarkably potent.
The manipulation of time within the narrative helps to express an eternity of grievance in what is such a beautifully artistic rendering of the eternal mourning of one’s self. Our unspoken protagonist helps the audience to sympathise a complete sense of helplessness and disconnect from the development and change occurring in the greater world around him. But, perhaps most impressive is the director’s confident ability to portray this in the exact same space but chronicling how the sphere that C inhabits transforms over a huge period of time – and as time presses on the film beings to shape and resemble a transcendent journey that captures the frustration of missing out on life while witnessing others’ existence.
The film’s score is wonderful, and perfectly fits the reflexive tone; it helps reinforce the cruel suddenness of death and how exactly one would feel if faced with the miserable and challenging fate of the protagonist. In some ways the music helps to speak for the main character and contributes to an atmosphere that is pulsing with an emotional energy but is skewed through an unavoidably restrained perspective. Along with the film’s striking score is its unconventional aspect ratio of 1.33 : 1. Although directors do make films in this ratio, it feels very suitable for this particular piece of work because of the films obvious indebtedness to silent cinema. There is very little dialogue, but the overall impression that the film leaves feels reminiscent of the 1921 silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, which is exhibited in the same ratio and also details the repercussions of one’s own death. There is also imaginative intertextuality with Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved Spirited Away, with the protagonist sharing a resemblance with the mysterious cloaked No-Face. The work of Terrence Malick feels as though it may have influenced the director also, as well as the intriguing work of Carlos Reygadas.
A Ghost Story feels unmistakably unconventional, refreshing, and something that is entirely new while still displaying an influence from great cinematic works. This quiet and thoughtful meditation on life, love and loneliness is easily the best film of 2017 so far, and possibly one of the best this decade has seen. A profound, affecting masterpiece.