The latest from David Lowery comes close to being a modern masterpiece.
David Lowery’s third film is, at the very least, one of the must-sees of this year’s Sundance London. His reputation precedes him. His debut feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, also gets an outing at the festival and last year he was Disney’s bold choice to direct Pete’s Dragon. Now he returns with A Ghost Story, and it’s something different yet again. The only thing he repeats is the combination of Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, and when they have such a unique on-screen chemistry, you can hardly blame him.
The narrative concerns a house, a couple and a ghost. The young and devoted married couple (Affleck and Mara) live in the house, but she is devastated when he’s killed in a car crash. While she finds it hard to cope with her loss, he returns as a solitary, sad-eyed ghost, covered with a massive white sheet, to watch over her. But then she moves away and the ghost has live with new occupants …..
You’re enveloped by the intimacy of the film from the very start, a profound connection that starts with the couple on screen and puts its arms round you so that you become an integral but invisible part of what’s happening. Rather like the ghost himself. It’s shot in 4:3 ratio throughout: each image has a grainy texture and rounded corners, so it’s like watching a living, breathing photograph album.
Lowery dwells on single moments with spectacular success, making you watch, waiting and hold your breath until they start to unfold before your eyes. The two that lodge themselves in your mind come shortly after Affleck’s death. In the hospital, his body lies on a trolley, covered by a massive white sheet. The camera fixes itself on that image, never moving, and nothing is happening other than the whirr of the heating unit. All is stillness until, almost imperceptibly, there’s the tiniest of twitches in the hem of the sheet – and he sits up, gets up and walks out of the hospital in a stately fashion. Part of that departure is filmed from behind, with the volumes of white fabric trailing in his wake creating something close to a bridal appearance.
The other sequence is packed with so much emotional intensity it doesn’t need any words – and doesn’t have them. Mara arrives home to find her thoughtful neighbor has left her a pie. She starts by cutting herself a slice, but doesn’t bother to take it out of the dish and starts hacking into it with a fork, eating greedily. Sat on the floor, she continues to attack it, bolting the food, sometimes crying, sometimes going at it rhythmically, physically eating but never enjoying or tasting. And then, as if to create a physical version of the pain raging inside her, she makes herself vomit. It’s bold, compelling film making and it’ll be indelibly etched in your mind.
But despite what you might read elsewhere, this is about much more than a deceased husband watching over his wife. It’s about his attachment to the house – he decided they should live there, she wasn’t so keen – and his return isn’t only an effort to re-connect with his wife, but also with the house itself and its history. He moves forward in time, finding it impossible to live with subsequent occupants, and goes backwards as well to the original plot of land where the house was built. And there’s the consideration of the legacy that we all leave while we’re alive, whether it’s bricks and mortar of a small piece of paper with a handwritten, secret message.
A Ghost Story is stunningly beautiful, profoundly moving and exerts a powerful fascination. One that smothered the audience at the press screening in absorbed silence. And the atmospheric music from Daniel Hart, especially the film’s theme song, won’t leave you – and you won’t want it to.
Lowery has written and directed something close to a modern masterpiece. One full of big, nay cosmic, ideas and the tiniest of details and one that knows how to use time on screen for the maximum impact: not a single beat is wasted yet it never feels hurried, nor does it feel slow. It’s a film that you’ll want to watch over and over again.
A Ghost Story screens at Sundance London on Sunday, 4 June.