In the span of two movies and one year, David Lowery has become one of my favorite directors working today. Last year’s Pete’s Dragon was an emotionally resonant film that put viewers into the head of a young boy learning to find his place in the world without losing himself if in it; and the best film in the “boy with a magic friend” genre since ET. A Ghost Story similarly takes on the spectrum of emotion, starting at loss and pushing through longing to whatever may be on the other side. It’s a pure tone piece, personal but universal, deliberately plodding through its 90 minute runtime, making each shot stick around long enough to force you to confront your emotions.
A Ghost Story is small, and its plot is bare. A man (Casey Affleck) dies suddenly, becoming a ghost garbed in the classic white sheet with cut-out eye-holes, who haunts his former home and grieving fiancé (Roony Mara). Eventually, she leaves, but he sticks around, observing the various people that move in and out of his house over the course of years and decades until he finds his way to the next step in his afterlife.
As stated, A Ghost Story wants you to take it all in, and Lowery’s direction consciously reminds you of your status as observer. The movie is shot in a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, which, with its heavy vertical letterboxing, means that it’s hard to forget that you’re watching a movie. Many shots are also framed so the camera is looking through doorways, down halls, or behind character’s backs, making the viewer feel like a solid presence spying in on these characters’ lives, just as the Ghost is doing. Like him, we’re unable to interact, forced to watch, forced to spend time focusing on the nuances of these people that come into our space for however long they may stay. You will feel like some of them may overstay their welcome; some scenes hold on a single shot so long as to deliberately test one’s patience. Others will pass too soon, making you wish you had paid better attention while they were still around, or at least had gotten their names, which the movie is hesitant to give away.
Your time with A Ghost Story will also likely be deeply personal. Having the main character being a featureless sheet forces you to project your own emotions onto him, a screen within a screen, taking the Kuleshov effect and running wild with it. While not as specific – and thus as powerful – as a movie like Moonlight, it has very much the same effect; sobering and chilling, yet intensely gratifying and cathartic.
A Ghost Story is a test of a movie, not like Lynch or Von Trier, but like John Cage’s 4’33”. There are no wrong answers, and whether you enjoy it or not doesn’t really reflect on your maturity or character, but it’s a movie that asks you for your patience without promise of payoff that you can’t create from yourself. It’s constructed to tease emotion, whatever emotion may already be inside of you, out through scenes of emotional profundity and banality – which scenes are which is, again, up for you to decide. If it works for you, it’ll stick around with you way after your time with it in the theater. A Ghost Story may not necessarily haunt you, but it begs to have its presence felt, reaching out to you, hoping that you’ll reach back.