‘A Ghost Story’ review: a gripping supernatural Rubik’s cube

12th August 2017


This year's prize for mind-bending originality goes to David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Its trailer may give you an idea of the story’s tone and style, yet nothing could prepare you for the ethereal viewing experience crafted by the Texas-based filmmaker. 

After breaking through in the 2013  critical darling Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and then proving he could bring the storytelling sensibility of indie cinema to the Disney machine with last year’s underrated Pete’s Dragon, Lowery knocks it out of the park again with this latest effort. 

A unique genre film somewhere between metaphysical and existential. Never a straight horror film or a thriller and surely transcending the boundaries of the average supernatural drama, A Ghost Story explores romantic love and grief as much as it philosophises over the concept of time and the meaning of life.

Counting on markedly little dialogue, focusing instead on visual storytelling with the help of a terrific soundscape and a haunting music score by Daniel Hart, Lowery observes a very-much-in-love unnamed married couple. We don’t really get much of a background on these people either, except the fact that Affleck’s character is an indie musician who loves the old ranch-like house they live in, while his wife longs for change and wishes to move out. 

Lowery has confessed that, aside from loving ghosts stories and wanting to tell one for a while, his inspiration to create these characters' dynamic came  from a similar argument he had with his wife. As the allure of studios attracted him towards moving to Los Angeles, she wanted them to stay put in Texas. However, this isn't necessarily a film focused on characters but rather one that swallows you into a thought-provoking reflection about what could possibly happen after we die. 

The film's basic supernatural premise is a classical ghost story: a spirit stuck in the in-between and unable to move forward until he carries out his unfinished business. However, you do well to forget the familiar rules and conventions of the genre because the source of the film's originality is precisely located in the how the story is executed.

Affleck and Mara return to collaborate with Lowery, re-capturing the undeniable chemistry showcased in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in spite of their little screen time together this time around. Well, that's if you exclude all the footage where Affleck performs under the ghost sheet. 

Yes, as amply illustrated by the trailer and the eerie poster, the titular ghost is represented through the iconographic image of a white bed sheet with dark cutouts as its eyes. However there’s no CGI involved and Oscar-winner Casey Affleck is indeed acting under said sheet in beautifully haunting fashion. 

No big plot spoilers here. Affleck's demise is an early one and indeed what kicks the story in motion, at least on a psycho-emotional level. This isn't a film that relies on plot but one that thrives on silences and meditation, on long takes where actions have more meaning than words. The writer/director hasn't hidden his love for the masters of European and Asian cinema: a pivotal and already iconic long-take scene in only two shots of a bereft Mara eating an entire pie says more about her state of grief than any dialogue might ever convey. 

Make no mistake, the slow pacing of Lowery's storytelling crafted into gorgeous images by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo with elegantly smooth dolly movements of wide shots and hypnotising close-ups, isn't probably for everyone. Even the apparently simple choice of shooting in a 1:33 aspect ratio – an Instagram-like square kind of framing – may throw you off at first. Yet, as the film progresses, you'll realise that the stylistic tool isn't mere aesthetic bombast. It’s actually a way to capture and convey this melancholy ghost’s overwhelming situation, desperately stuck and trying to figure out what it all means. 

What the filmmakers have concocted for his unique journey is astounding without sensationalism and patient viewers will be rewarded by a twisty final act that will make you gasp and awe whilst shaking you up inside. If you've experienced serious grief in your life like I did and especially that horrible feeling of things left suspended with a dearly departed, this is a piece of filmmaking destined to strike some major chords. Yet, if hopefully you're not familiar with those feelings there's still plenty to ponder as Lowery ambitiously tackles important questions about our existence. The existentialist questions raised by the filmmaker are unsettling and anguishing but the message is ultimately to be taken with a sense of hope and liberation. 

Eerily beautiful, lyrically haunting and downright mesmerising, A Ghost Story is poised to become the best film of the year or at the very least, the most original. It's hard to put into words the sense of wonder one is bound to experience while watching it. There's so much depth and such clever storytelling ideas both on the page and on the screen, magically brought to life by a sublimely Malick-esque cinematography. A gripping supernatural Rubik's cube from start to finish, A Ghost Story takes your breath away with its brilliant twist, its philosophical quest and amazing performances across the board – you won’t be able to take this movie off your mind for days after the credits roll.

Words by Francesco Cerniglia
A Ghost Story is out in Cinemas from Aug 11, 2017
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