A Ghost Story

Year: 2017
Production Co: Sailor Bear
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Kesha

Back when Lars von Trier made Dogville and Manderlay all the chatter was about the dogme method of filming on a huge, dark soundstage with rooms and locations marked on the floor in chalk, all of it like some very professional stageplay rehearsal. I appreciated the creative sentiment behind the approach, but it was the stories and allegories within them I responded to a lot more.

A Ghost Story has the same quality. The presence – and presentation – of the ghost in such a childlike way (literally a guy standing under a sheet with holes cut out for eyes) is certainly an interesting approach and no doubt says something about the intent of the story, and if A Ghost Story wasn't as narratively successful, it might overshadow the actual tale being told.

But even though it belongs perfectly in the tone and emotional resonance of the movie, the physical figure of the ghost itself can be pretty easily decoupled from what the tale is saying – if it was done with the latest CGI it wouldn't necessarily detract from or change the story.

We don't learn a lot about C (Casey Affleck) and M's (Rooney Mara) life together. Rather than follow a story about the big moments in their relationship that takes them from A to B, we see snippets of them in bed, coming and going from their small suburban house, her listening to a track of music he's produced in his apparent work as a musician, etc.

But before we've got to know them too closely we see C laying slumped, bloody and dead in his car after a crash. His ghost (the walking bedsheet) returns home to move slowly through the house and watch as M tries to grieve. But even that's not treated so deliberately – the longest and most intense scene in the movie is when a caring neighbour has dropped off a pie and we watch a static shot for what feels like five full minutes of M eating the pie while sitting on the kitchen floor, trying not to cry and eventually scrambling into the bathroom to throw the whole lot up in the toilet.

But as C's ghost soon learns, he's not only haunting his house over the long term, he's decoupled from time the way the living know it altogether. Without any pomp or pageantry time marches on and shifts. M moves out and a Hispanic family moves in which C then keeps company (and ends up terrorising, perhaps in frustration or heartache). Squatters cavort and party in the long abandoned building some unspecified time later.

Eventually the house is demolished, leaving him to stumble slowly through the wreckage. He finds himself decades – maybe centuries – in the future surrounded by glittering high rise buildings. He sits at a campsite where a frontier-era family try to make their lives before Native Americans slaughter them all.

There's a motif of another ghost in a house next door that starts off being slighty cute but ends in a way that's heart wrenching as well as cleverly establishing the stakes for C's future. Back when they were alive together, M told him one of her childhood traditions was to write a small note and hide it in a house she's just about the leave. He knows she did so before she left their house to move on with her life, and if he can get it out of the crack in the wall he's been working at for (decades?) and see what it says, it seems to be the thing that will give him closure – which the final frames confirm.

It's a melancholy and beautiful meditation on loss and how human connection might transcend death and it has a very particular and assured style you don't even notice until it's over. There's not a lot of dialogue and what little there is doesn't really do any storytelling, it just gives you the ambience of the relationship it's portraying – when C is talking to the ghost next door they simply raise their hands slowly in greeting and subtitles appear on the screen. Much of the time scenes are played out through very slow, fluid movement and silence.

It's directed by David Lowery who was given the keys to one of Disney's minor kingdoms last year with Pete's Dragon . Ordinarily it might look like a commercial director having paid his penance and given the means to do his passion project, but this slightly avant grade, sunburned indie style is where Lowery originally came from with Ain't Them Bodies Saints – Pete's Dragon was actually the outlier in his career.

But it's a beautiful story beautifully told, the tricksy concept a little bit jarring when you first see it but you soon melt into the tale and accept it unquestioningly. All that's left to wonder if whether it was really Affleck under the sheet the whole time...

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