A Ghost Story (2017)
Written & Directed by David Lowrey
A man and woman live in a small house in rural Texas. There is an ongoing argument about whether they should move to a place with more opportunities or stay in this place. The woman wants to leave. The man wants to stay. Then he dies, his car t-boned by another vehicle. After she visits the hospital morgue and goes in tears, the man rises, still covered in the sheet and wanders back home. This is when he begins to haunt that small house. Time slows to a crawl; then it passes in torrents. The man eventually comes to see his time in this home from a new perspective and comes to a very final conclusion about not just his life, but all of ours.
I started A Ghost Story from a neutral to a negative position. I had seen the trailer, and aesthetically it had many elements that appealed to me, but I was trepidatious because I felt there were tones of a filmmaker becoming pretentious and darling about a slight concept. However, everything I suspected I would dislike about the picture dissolved within the opening scenes and I grew enthralled by the mood, and world Lowrey was establishing.
There is a now infamous scene of Rooney Mara eating a pie in the film. If you have heard about this scene but haven’t viewed it in the context of the entire movie, then I would understand why you would think it was art house drivel. However, what Lowrey is doing with time throughout A Ghost Story is playing on our perceptions of time during periods of grief and joy. The saddest moments of the movie are slowed down excruciatingly, emphasizing how in despair the hands of the clock move slowest. It feels like we will never move beyond the most profound pains. Lowrey counters this when our protagonist views his wife making the first steps to overcome her grief. Her morning exit for work begins to happen in rapid succession; an overwhelming loop. This reflects how when events in our lives are happy we can feel like we are desperately trying to hold on before they are over.
However, David Lowrey is telling a story even more significant than that, using indie filmmaking aesthetics to unfold something on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey regarding theme. A Ghost Story is much less a typical plot-driven or character-driven movie; this is a theme-driven piece of cinema. The characters matter but only so much as their relation to the scope and themes, Lowrey is conveying. This sounds like the picture could become cold and impersonal, but a radiance of warmth and intimacy vibrates throughout. The score by Daniel Hart adds to this building of ideas. From the first piece of music we hear there is a sense of impending revelation, it moves forward quietly but steadily.
Music is used to significant effect, and it is not until the halfway point of A Ghost Story that we get a real sense of what this element of the picture has been telling us. There is a repeated melody in the score that is eventually revealed to be the core of the song the protagonist was working on before his death. With the lyrics added we now understand the song is almost prophetic, speaking about the singer’s sense of solitude. His partner is nowhere to be found, and he is drowning in self-doubt and pity. The weight of this musical piece is increased when new residents come to live in the house.
During a house party, the protagonist overhears one guest delivering a monologue about the futility of art, how everything humanity creates is destined to be destroyed. Not only will our solar system one day be ended, but the universe itself will eventually collapse and do away with every atom of reality including the art we have made. It is essential to keep this in mind and keep your ear open because before the film is done, in an immensely transcendent final act you will hear that melody being hummed in a situation where you would think it was impossible that the one humming it could ever know the song existed.
A Ghost Story is a film poem, meant to processed in different ways by different audiences at varying times in their lives. I was emotionally moved by the images and themes Lowrey presented me with, and I have to imagine this is a picture I will be revisiting many times over. There is much said here in such paradoxically simple and complex ways. A24 has presented us with a true masterpiece in this film.