I remember seeing the trailer for A Ghost Story before Wonder Woman (I think). My initial thought was on the aspect ratio and how interesting the choice was to pick 4:3 with rounded edges, like a super 8 film. Regardless, it intrigued me. And the more research I did on it, the more interesting it became to me. When A Ghost Story came out it was a limited release. I figured that I would have to wait for it to come out on Blu-ray since independent films don’t always come to my area. So, when it showed up unexpectedly, I was ecstatic. Finally, after waiting for most of the summer, I was able to see it. And I can safely say this is one of the best, if not the best, films I’ve seen this summer.
For the average American movie-goer, especially those who enjoy the summer blockbusters, A Ghost Story probably won’t be a movie that sounds very interesting. It’s going to come off as some weird artsy fartsy drama with a lot of incomprehensible subtext. It is also interesting that A Ghost Story released in the summer, rather than in the fall for Oscar bait season. My suspicions were correct in thinking there would be a small crowd, if any. A total of 6 people was in my theatre for the showing. A Ghost Story is not a blockbuster by any means, it is an unconventional, visually driven independent drama. It’s slowly paced with little dialogue, leaving a lot up to the viewer to follow. Most of the story is told through visuals, which is hard to do when the main character’s face is underneath a sheet, having no facial expressions to base emotion off of.
I only know David Lowery from his first big blockbuster, Pete’s Dragon, which released in 2016. He directed a few movies before Pete’s Dragon, but it was his partnership with Disney that put him on the map after having little success. After finishing up with that movie, Lowery wanted to return to his roots in indie filmmaking with some friends, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. He came up with the idea of A Ghost Story after moving away from his first house and the pain that came with it. And soon after, that idea turned into A Ghost Story. It only took Lowery a week to write the script. He stated in an interview that it was the move and all the emotions that came with leaving a special place, like his first house, that caused him to really think about life and its meaning.
A Ghost Story is the story of a recently dead husband’s journey as he tries to reconnect with his wife who is grieving his passing while being tied to their house. The first 30-ish minutes show the aftermath of the young widow, played by Rooney Mara, mourning the loss of her recently deceased supposed husband, played by Casey Affleck, (the relationship is not mentioned). There is some buzz going around one scene in particular that perfectly illustrates the grief of losing a loved one. Which is Rooney Mara’s pie eating scene. I won’t get too much into it to keep this spoiler-free, but I found it to be simultaneously fantastic and heart wrenching, probably the best scene of the year. It was very sad and powerful, really showing human suffering. Mara did a fantastic job at portraying someone who is going through a loss. So much so that I feel as if I got a better understanding of what it’s like to experience the loss of a loved one, something I have not personally experienced myself yet.
One way this movie builds sadness and despair is the length of its shots. The pie scene especially, and a scene in the opening with Mara and Affleck lying in bed, where they begin kissing after being woken up by a loud noise. It’s a long take, about 3 minutes just of them in bed. But it builds the relationship in a short amount of time, making the impact all the more heart wrenching once Affleck’s character dies. The long shots are not just for style, but hold a lot of meaning, and weight. After Affleck’s character dies, there is a shot where we see his covered dead body on a hospital bed that lingers for a very long time with nothing happening, allowing the audience to soak in the meaning of death, its impact and the emptiness that comes with it. And since the aspect ratio is 4:3, the eye is drawn towards the center of the frame. And the box-like frame gives off a secluded feeling, adding to Affleck’s ghost already being trapped in the house. A similar thing has been done before in an indie film I watched recently called Mommy, which has an aspect ratio of 1:1. This seclusion really sucks you in and allows you to get a feeling from the ghost with no face.
With the distinct style and editing choices, A Ghost Story feels like a timeless classic. Very still camera movements, long takes, and a score that is utilized in a very effective manner instead of just background noise. Chris Stuckmann put it best in his review of the movie, the aspect ratio and overall style makes it look like we are seeing someone’s personal home video. You can watch his review here. David Lowery stated in an interview that the reason why he picked something simple like a ghost is because of how recognizable it is. Having the main character feature-less lets the audience project themselves into the main character and fill in the emotion and experience what the ghost experiences.
And A Ghost Story is not a horror film, despite the title. Although there are moments of books flying off shelves, or piano keys being hit. The movie plays with those tropes by supplying a reason for the books being pushed, or piano keys mashed. There are certain elements that are used for a spooky atmosphere, but it’s not in the same vein as casual horror movies. It is scary because of the deep questions it asks. A Ghost Story is a very thought provoking, philosophical, and psychological drama about love, loss, legacy, and, letting go. It’s a film that makes you ask yourself how you’re living your life, and are you leaving a legacy that will be remembered? While also supplying the idea of moving on from things in your past. Late into the movie it brings up an example of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, asking how it will be remembered 100 years from now, to 1,000, to 1 billion years. It is famous now, but will it be in the far future? Will it be written on a sheet of paper or a recorded and kept somewhere? Another scene towards the end really makes you ask “is anything worth it? What is the value of everything I’m surrounded by?”, and, “what is life?”.
It wants the audience to participate and experience, not just be entertained by what they are seeing. I always enjoy a film where I can actively participate while I’m presented with more information and apply everything I’ve learned to my own life. This was one aspect that really made me fall in love with A Ghost Story. It gave me the freedom to draw my own conclusions without having to be spoon-fed details. I’ve mentioned before that there isn’t much dialogue, so if you want to understand it then you need to be awake and thinking. A Ghost Story will not treat you like a baby and spoon feed information to you because it thinks you are incapable of ingesting it yourself. It relies on you comprehending what is happening to get the message. Which is hard when the main character has a sheet over him. But even with the ghost being detail-less, we still get plenty of emotion by his actions. We know how he feels because of how Affleck acts under the sheet, while also being able to project ourselves into the ghost, giving it more life than just a sheet with 2 holes for eyes.
With heavy subjects like loss, and letting go, the movie does a great job at allowing the audience to breathe. Accompanying those long shots is a lot of quietness. Many of the independent films I’ve seen are relatively discreet in its sound, or, at the very least, not nearly as loud as any movie produced by Hollywood. I went to see this with my brother and he had to be very careful when reaching for some Mike and Ike’s so he wouldn’t make any noise. The second half does get somewhat louder, but the first half is noticeably quiet. The long takes and quiet sound mix make for a very somber experience. And it’s very nice having a film that allows you to breathe when covering heavy topics like this. If there was an absence of those quieter moments, I don’t think the film would be as impactful.
Ever since I left the theater a few days ago, I have not been able to stop thinking about this film. I loved every single minute of its hour and a half runtime. It’s one I would love to see again, hopefully in the theater. I will be getting this on Blu-Ray. If you like movies that might give you a different outlook on life, or bring up deep philosophical questions, then go see A Ghost Story. Those who really enjoy a lot of action and a quick pace, not wanting to really think during their movie, probably won’t find it to be up their alley. But I do think that there is something here for everyone. I personally have not experienced loss of this caliber, but seeing the movie not only shows me what it’s like to experience loss. It also makes me second-guess myself on what I’m leaving behind when it’s my time.
There are a couple of small issues I did have with A Ghost Story. One scene has a character talk about the message of the film that is a little forced. Even though it is kind of distracting, I do think that without it the message would not hold the weight same if the scene were to be altered, or removed. And some might find a few scenes with the ghost to be unintentionally funny. It is possible the film is going for some comedy in some of those moments, but I wasn’t bothered by it. My brother, who has little experience with indie movies like this, had chuckled at a couple of the reactions from the ghost. But regardless I absolutely loved A Ghost Story and so did he. It’s been on my mind ever since I left the theater. I want to remember its message, which is the highest compliment I can give to a film. It is worth the price of admission. 9/10, very, very strong recommend.