tue 12/12/2017

A Ghost Story review - spellbinding vision of life, death and time | reviews, news & interviews

A Ghost Story review - spellbinding vision of life, death and time

A Ghost Story review - spellbinding vision of life, death and time

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star, but director David Lowery lets the sheet do the talking

Sounds of silence: Casey Affleck waits in limbo

A Ghost Story must be the first film with a sheet – a very expressive one – in the leading role. Beneath it is C (Casey Affleck), with two holes for eyes. It’s funny at first, but the Halloween cliché is rapidly transcended. C, a musician, haunts the faded ranch house in Texas where he lived with his wife M (Rooney Mara) before his death in a car crash nearby. A simple plot line, but this, David Lowery’s fourth feature (St Nick, Pete’s Dragon, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which also starred Affleck and Mara) is a complex and beautiful movie about time, loss and impermanence. After seeing it twice I’m still puzzling over parts of it, especially the end.

There are sort-of clues planted at the beginning, when C and M (we only learn these initials in the end credits, otherwise they’re unnamed) are entwined on the sofa soon after moving in. She tells him about hiding notes, folded small, in houses when she was a child, so that if she ever wanted to go back there’d be “a piece of me, there waiting”. Later, they’re woken up in the night by the banging of piano keys. C investigates but there’s no one there.

M remains uneasy about the house, C feels drawn to it because, he mumbles cryptically, it’s part of their history. He plays her a song he’s written – actually “I Get Overwhelmed” by David Hart, who wrote the atmospheric film score. And then, the unexplained accident – we only see its aftermath, with C slumped at the wheel. Mara, who has a wonderfully fragile yet self-contained quality, identifies his sheeted body in hospital and leaves. So does he, travelling majestically back to the house across a vast rural landscape in his shroud.

A Ghost StoryFrom then on the dialogue is minimal. The sheet and its powerful folds do the talking. C waits like a large, faithful dog, watching M as she grieves quietly (Affleck and Mara, pictured above). In one memorably odd four-minute take, M eats almost a whole chocolate pie that the estate agent has left for her, observed by the ghost; the film is shot in a square, 1:33 ratio with rounded frame corners, and Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography brings to mind the grainy, off-balance style of photographer Robert Frank. But life goes on, at least M’s does, while C’s ghost remains static, locked in limbo in the Texas ranch house, watching the passing of time for the living. M comes and goes, her life speeding up when the grieving is over. A new family moves in and the ghost is enraged at the kids and their Christmas fun. They don’t stay long – he makes sure of that.

You get used to wordlessness, which makes C’s subtitled exchange with another ghost – she’s waiting at the window in an adjacent house, also wearing a sheet – even more poignant and brilliantly strange. There’s an irritating metaphysical monologue during a party in the house when hipster beardie Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy (he also starred in Lowery’s 2011 short Pioneer) holds forth about our attempts to make our mark on the world by creating something – a song, a novel – to leave behind when we die, though as the universe is expanding and the sun will swallow our planet up, what’s the point? It’s a relief when that’s over and we return to silence, as C moves forwards and backwards through time, though always rooted to the same Texas spot.

Except it’s not silence. Lowery ushers us into another dimension, where each scrape, scratch and bang has depth. Shadows and flickers gain meaning. You come out in a trance, listening to and seeing the world differently – and that’s quite an achievement.

Lowery ushers us into another dimension, where each scrape, scratch and bang has depth

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters