Texas director David Lowery has thrown his hat into the arena of abstract art films with his newest effort, “A Ghost Story,” and delivers one the most emotionally impactful, thematically rich films of the decade.
After helming Disney’s surprisingly wonderful remake of “Pete’s Dragon,” “A Ghost Story” marks his return to independence, writing and directing a film, free of studio shackles. It is an unadulterated success, a miracle of writing, acting and direction.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple who live in a vaguely rural/suburban area, and their names are never provided to the audience. The credits name them C and M, but their names are never important to the story, nor are any of the typical details audiences have come to expect from a film.
The two go through a rough patch in their relationship, and then, about 20 minutes into the film, C dies in an offscreen car crash. M identifies his dead body at the morgue, leaves and the camera holds for a few minutes. The silence is deafening, awkward and almost distracting in its own right. Just when it seems like the camera may cut away, C sits up and walks out, still covered by the hospital sheet, looking like a silly ghost from Looney Toons or the emoji catalogue.
What transpires over the next hour of the film will not be spoiled, but it essentially abandons basic narrative structure. Lowery weaves the tale of this couple into a meditation not only on grief, but on time, the meaning of life and how one’s connections to physical places define who they are as a person.
This hour resembles poetry far more than it resembles any recognizable filmmaking techniques, but it allows the movie to breathe. A typical jam-packed summer blockbuster with six simultaneous subplots has no room for subtext, but the narrative experimentation of “A Ghost Story” allows for existential theorizing and a deep-dive into the philosophical implications of human nature itself.
The closest thing to a flaw the movie contains is a five-minute rant given by a drunk guest at a party. The guest goes on and on in an impassioned speech about life and death, and how any one person’s life can have meaning. It borders on making the subtext of the film obvious, but Lowery handles it with subtlety, provoking the thoughts of the viewer without endorsing the point of view of this character.
This long speech comprises probably half of the script, as this is a very quiet film. There are long, 15-minute wordless stretches where the camera does the only talking. Luckily, Lowery is a master storyteller, conveying every emotion in his characters even as one is covered by a bedsheet.
Lowery’s willingness to make a film as weird, quiet and abstract as “A Ghost Story” deserves commendation, but it makes the movie extremely inaccessible. Not only is this not for everyone, it isn’t even for most people. Those who like the film will adore it, but those who do not click with Lowery’s vision may start looking for the exits in the first half hour.
“A Ghost Story” is something entirely new and entirely different — a tale of a grief, a cinematic poem on life, a reflection on time itself and the best movie of 2017.
“How impactful are our relationships to physical places,” the film asks. “And what happens to those relationships when we die?”
These philosophical questions remain unanswered at the end of the day, because, really, who is there to answer them?
“A Ghost Story”
Runtime: 92 minutes
Score: 5/5 stars