A Ghost Story ★★★★

2017 Ranked

Heading into A Ghost Story, one cannot be blamed for assuming it is an examination of grief. With a young husband (Casey Affleck) dying early on and wife (Rooney Mara) mourning his loss, eating pie, and trying to move on without him, it is easy to see how the film is about grief. Yet, in equal measure, it is a film about memory, time, purpose, music, stories, and every little detail that makes life so eternal, so essential, and universal. It is a film about grief shown through the lens of an unexpected protagonist - the ghost under a sheet - who traverses time, space, people, and location. Powerful, poignant, and silently accomplished, A Ghost Story is a rousing return to form for director David Lowery after working for Disney last year. In this low-key, gorgeous, and powerful film, Lowery re-establishes himself as the heir apparent to Terrence Malick's cinematic poetry throne.

Silently sewing together images, Lowery's camera frequently finds stunning images. From the very beginning, shots of Affleck's ghost walking through open fields to get back home with the sun peaking over the horizon, the ghost lurking in the background with Mara in the foreground, or the shot of light pouring in as the home is destroyed, A Ghost Story is a film with stunning visuals. This was very much the case with Lowery's prior effort Ain't Them Bodies Saints - which also starred Affleck and Mara - and it is nice to see him return to this gorgeous style. However, compared to that film, Lowery is much less reliant on the beauty of the outdoors to create stunning imagery in A Ghost Story. Rather, he now relies upon drab gray and brown interiors, dark shadows, and a largely gloomy home that is fashioned as a prison cell for this ghost for the rest of eternity until he finds what he has been looking for all this time. Dark, ominous, and spooky, this locale is one that would work for a horror film, but rather, Lowery uses it as a place for existential horror. This ghost is doomed to stay here until he can get the note left behind by Mara that he wants to retrieve, yet he is unable to break through the painted wall to reach the note. Trapped, lonely, and solemn, the ghost's existence is one of little joy, pain (especially when Mara tries to move on), and anger at how he has been so easily forgotten.

However, what is perhaps most interesting is how the aspect ratio communicates so much. Lowery himself has stated it was to make the film more claustrophobic to show how trapped the ghost is in this home, but that is just scratching the surface. With a squareish frame and rounded edges with drab colors, the film often looks like an old photograph. This is particularly pertinent due to the film's thoughts regarding memories and the little pieces of ourselves that we leave behind. Being remembered, our memories, and our brief time on Earth after which we are forgotten forever, are all constantly on the mind of A Ghost Story throughout. Mara leaving little notes of things she likes in houses she moves from, the quiet mourning of her husband, and a party guest speaking about memory and Beethoven, all exemplify this element of the film. Yet, what is abundantly clear in A Ghost Story is that time does not matter. It will advance, things will be left behind, people die, and people move on to other places. In the end, the only thing that does matter are the little pieces of ourselves we leave in the hearts and souls of those we touch. As Affleck silently lingers in the background with Mara eating a piece of pie, this fact is felt. She does not need to say anything, nor does he. Both miss one another and it is not because they existed, were in that home, or were even because they were married. Rather, it is because they both touched one another's lives and, now, circumstance and a freak accident have taken them apart from one another. Instead of holding one another, they now are left wallow in the solitude and thickness of the air in the home as they try to soothe the hole in their hearts.

With a minimal script that often amounts to a character standing stationary for a period of time to the ambitious time traveling finale, A Ghost Story is a film that is nearly impossible to not compare to the work of Malick. Yet, it is not just in the style and ambition that Lowery manages to capture the feeling of Malick's best works, but also in the feelings they emote. The best Malick films, such as The Tree of Life, are ambitious and show life from the very beginning to the present day with a silent, melodic, and poetic flow to the proceedings. A Ghost Story is very much the same way. Instead of being a typical narrative film, A Ghost Story is often best described as visual poetry. Through small suggestions - such as what is on the paper (it is the quote from the book that Affleck knocks off the shelf and Mara reads for sure) - or through this gorgeous mosaic of images that, on their own, often communicate every emotion and purpose perfectly, Lowery creates a visual masterpiece. It is not a film that can be read and understood. It is instead a film that demands to be viewed, experienced, digested, and - eventually - appreciated. Without large emotional outbursts, poetic lines ruminating on life, time, love, and loss, or manipulative sequences designed to make you cry, A Ghost Story finds the simple beauty in life. The eternal feelings of love, loss, grief, and the desire to be remembered, all capture in this lyrical and poignant work. In many ways, this is perhaps the film's greatest achievement. Through solemn and silent images, it manages to show how it feels to grieve, mourn, love, and desire. It does not need to call attention to itself to be felt. Rather, it simply floats by and leaves a little bit of itself in your heart and mind.

Powerful and poetic cinema at its very finest, David Lowery's A Ghost Story is a film that does not need pomp and circumstance to tell its incredibly ambitious story or bring its themes home. Rather, through moving images, silent but powerful performances from Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and a keen understanding of how extraordinarily beautiful the small moments in life can be, A Ghost Story manages to be powerful and incredibly moving. Celebrating the little things that, when they are gone, we will go through time and space to re-capture, A Ghost Story is a film that is never cloying, sentimental, and manipulative. Instead, it is just raw, real, and achingly authentic.

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