by Michael Koresky
A Ghost Story
Dir. David Lowery, U.S., A24
Self-consciously spare and reaching for a grandeur possibly too far beyond its frame, A Ghost Story is nevertheless a film of mesmerizing visual ideas and conceptual integrity. Where director David Lowery’s 2013 breakthrough feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints felt like a rattling bag of borrowed movie cues and received ideas about American Film Art, this new film (financed from his Pete’s Dragon fortune) confidently inhabits its own ethereal cinematic space, a film that’s tenably enamored of its visual vocabulary without forsaking character psychology or emotional legibility. Though it feels like Lowery is going for something of a quasi-mystical southwestern variation on Tsai Ming-liang, and though the images sometimes evoke the comic-like stasis of Wes Anderson, its children’s book aesthetic—every new scene feels like a turned page—rarely feels reductively stylized. It’s a genuinely pictorial work, invested throughout with a deeply felt sadness.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who starred as the outlaw lovers in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, are reunited as an unnamed couple living in a modest ranch home in a pastoral Texan suburb. Within the pre-title sequence, Lowery drifts through time, alighting on small moments in the lovers’ domestic lives and containing them within cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s nostalgic, polaroid-like 1.33:1 frame. As the film opens, the two lay in bed, surrounded by shadow, holding each other, as though in protection from some outside disturbance. We don’t know how long they have been together; we know he’s a musician (a writer of somewhat irritating pop soundscapes we hear mercifully few snatches of throughout), and what we learn Mara’s character’s past relates to her psychology rather than to literal events. Her hushed dialogue in this scene clues us in that the house will be not just the film’s setting but its emotional, nostalgic anchoring point. She tells him about how when she was young and her family moved from place to place, she would write little notes about things she wanted to remember about living in a particular house and then hide them in the walls, each house forever swallowing up her secrets. If we listen closely, we might hear a scraping sound emanating through the rooms. At other times, a prismatic light is reflected on the ceiling and wall or in the night sky, like a herald from outer space. Daniel Hart’s swelling score ties all of these things together so they seem a part of one unknown, perhaps omniscient consciousness.
Soon, something goes bump in the night: a loud reverberation wakes the sleeping lovers, as though something, or someone, has fallen on the piano. The two of them search the house to investigate, the camera staying on her back, a sheet wrapped around her form, as he, clad only in pajama bottoms, intrepidly searches. It’s a traditional image, both in terms of the horror genre and as an expression of gender roles, both of which Lowery’s film will quietly come to overturn. Something is clearly not at rest in this house, yet the lovers return to bed, an overhead shot lingering on their clasped bodies for such a long time that our expectations as viewers move from fear (when will the next terrifying noise occur?) to grace: this is an image of contentment and love as opposed to anxiety. A Ghost Story will be a film about watching and waiting, and this initial sequence intimates the multiple layers of perspective it will take on.
Lowery opens the film with an eerie quote from Virginia Woolf’s short story “A Haunted House” (the epigram reads: “Whatever hour you awoke there was a door shutting”), and in a later emotional moment a Woolf book is knocked to the floor. The film does clearly aspire to the more literate type of ghost story—in which a “haunting” is an emotional, psychic, existential state—which can also be felt in Woolf’s masterpiece To the Lighthouse, the devastating second chapter of which relates the mournful absence of the once glorious, imperious Mrs. Ramsay as though from the perspective of an empty house. I insinuate no equity of quality between these two, but it’s worth noting that Woolf’s chamber of echoes can be properly recalled in something that so often errs toward the cartoonish. The central promotional image of A Ghost Story is a human form covered in a white sheet with two eyeholes haphazardly snipped out of it, recalling most acutely the figures from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (an American comic work that manages grace notes of pure existentialism). The one beneath the sheet is Affleck’s character, now a man without a name, face, or body, dead following a car accident, which is related off-screen. As the film progresses, he is doomed to stay on earth and watch his girlfriend live on, and we must bear witness to his witnessing.
The sheet has an uncanny effect, at once softening and unbearably sad: a low-fi way of achieving poignancy without special effects, yes, but also a cinematic object, a surface onto which we project our fears, hopes, desires, a blank sheet that stares back. In one of the film’s most mournful moments, our protagonist glances across the lawn at the window of the house next door and catches the eyeholes of another ghost draped in a white sheet, this one of a lightly floral pattern. The two communicate telepathically, which shows up onscreen as subtitles: “I’m waiting for someone,” says the ghost across the way. “Who?” he asks. “I don’t remember,” the other ghost responds. The lack of emotion in the delivery—simple shot-reverse shots and affectless text—betrays the profound emotion of the exchange. Needless to say, we never see this other ghost’s missing person—its “owner”—come home; it’s hard to imagine anyone who loves a pet not being unsettled and moved by this. (One might also think of robot boy David in his amphibicopter at the bottom of the ocean in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, staring ahead at his unresponsive blue fairy deity, frozen in wait for thousands of years, an image of complete and desolate human yearning that inspires hope and despair in equal measure.)
The essential cinematic power of such images is so strong that Lowery’s less persuasive visual gambits seem not as much of a liability. The director has a tendency to push single, static shots to durational extremes. Sometimes this can have the effect of making the viewer more receptive to the film’s patient, emotional wavelength, as in the aforementioned bedroom scene or a nearly two-minute morgue scene which plays like a comic-surreal variation on moments in John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Fog. In others, like the already much-discussed “Rooney Mara Eats a Pie” passage, the limitations of Lowery’s aggressive art-film technique become clear: in two long takes, we watch—along with the ghost, who’s present but somehow barely noticeable in the right of the frame—as she scarfs down about half of a pie, clearly post-funeral comfort food left by a friend, and though the set-up is meant to communicate insatiable grief, the longer the camera is trained on Mara as she stabs at and swallows much of the dessert (which looks and sounds suspiciously like fake, sugarless prop food), the more it registers as a stunt about a performer’s dedication and a director’s daring. Soon after this, Lowery toys with time in different ways, speeding up and slowing down without warning. The ghost sees life play out before his eyes, watching her come and go. Life moves on, she moves on—in one jarring effect she leaves her house over and over in the same shot, reappearing in the bathroom each time she walks out the front door. Time is elastic, but it also collapses, and our faceless protagonist watches and watches.
Finally, she leaves this haunted place, hiding a note in a wall crevice before painting over it. This is her exit from the picture, and the music swells for her triumph; she has freed herself not only from her own memories but from the ghost’s gaze, and ours. Like in that tremendous reaction shot from The Tree of Life of the empty house watching the family leave forever, Lowery makes us feel physical vacancy as emotional fullness. But our protagonist is fated to stay here, on this spot, and through a succession of house owners he remains focused on the prize: the folded piece of paper hidden in the wall, which his finger can’t seem to retrieve from under his endless cloak despite his eternal scratch-scratch-scratching—a depiction of Sisyphean commitment that hits with primal force.
Lowery races forward in the film’s second movement, which levitates from earthly stasis to cosmic meditation, folding the lovers’ destiny into the flow of history and time. First there are two interludes, one in which the ghost fulfills his promise as a full-on poltergeist, terrorizing a single mother and her two sweet kids who have moved in, and another in which a soothsayer played by Will Oldham holds court over a bunch of intrusive young partiers with his thoughts on humanity’s legacy, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and the physics of music (suddenly chatty, Lowery’s film temporarily becomes a Linklater joint). And in an all-encompassing final passage that reminded me of Virginia Lee Burton’s 1942 picture book meditation on American industry and the forward march of time, The Little House, the ghost watches houses fall and cities rise, a lost soul wandering a glittering metropolis. After taking a Wings of Desire plunge, he seems to fall through a tear in the universe, moving back centuries to an untouched American landscape and finally to the film’s beginning, adding further layers to the complex narrative play of who’s watching and who’s being watched. In the simplest terms, the film seems to say that we’re always looking in our own lives, haunting our own houses.
In grappling with the supernatural, Lowery has found a more persuasive naturalism. The form of A Ghost Story, with its precarious balance of warm familiarity and bold grandiosity, seems hewn from the same rock as Miranda July’s The Future, another willfully eccentric American film motivated by a beseeching innocence—incidentally also from a director whose earlier work felt wan and overdetermined in comparison. Lowery’s control over his images and his mastery of the frame help elevate this lamentation for lost things far beyond the childish. The draped figure, scratching the walls as it seeks a possibly unattainable answer to his own little life’s question, is as elemental an image as any in recent American cinema, possibly even more resonant than Lowery could have intended. This film’s ideas are so maddeningly simple that they touch the profound.