Against the eternity of time, we are ephemeral, as transient as the shifting clouds which obscure the heavens, the stars above remaining apparently unchanged. Almost every story ever told, every history every written, every song sung, was by or about someone who is now dead. Every story we have grown up with has become a ghost story.
His most recent film Pete’s Dragon somewhat of an overtly commercial departure from his more frequent haunt of character drama, A Ghost Story reunites writer/director/editor David Lowery with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (“C” and “M”), his leads in 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints for a challenging and very personal project.
A young married couple struggling through life, a car accident outside their home separates them forever as M identifies C’s body in the morgue before leaving to continue her life alone. His death without fanfare or herald, under a white hospital sheet he lies and under a white hospital sheet he will remain, walking the corridors and trapped within the world of the living, only able to see what is directly ahead and missing his exit.
Filmed in 1:33:1 aspect ratio, the enclosed frame makes the story personal, a home movie from another age as the omnipresent camera passively observes but never participates or offers anything approaching commentary, a constant detached perspective of emotional distance watching the ghost of C watching M as she goes about her half-lived life.
A tale of love, loss, longing and patient waiting and searching for existential meaning, the style, themes and pacing almost set it as a companion piece to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life but while that film occasionally baffled but was ultimately uplifting and fulfilling A Ghost Story is wilfully obtuse, less inspiring than exasperating.
Almost wordless, while ghost speak is subtitled, Spanish is not, presumably as this was not a language C spoke in life, but it cannot be pretended that the pie-eating scene of M trying to fill herself with something other than grief is anything other than indulgent; it can only be hoped Mara did not have to suffer repeated takes.
With elements of Koyaanisqatsi and, of all things, Ghost – rage allows the spirit realm to interact with the material world – the abstract narrative aims for profound spirituality but is derailed by the enforced lecture of a boorish party goer (musician Will Oldham) on what an individual gives to posterity, spelling out for the audience questions they should have already thought to consider unprompted.
Painfully on-the-nose and out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, the story returns to C as he falls out of time still tied to the same patch of ground where he died, witness to other lives, other deaths, buildings rising and falling, but underlying it is a truth told more effectively and dramatically in The Believer in 2001, that hell is repeating the same moments and mistakes over and over.