At least once a year a film comes along and begs audiences to feel something. In 2012 there was The Perks of Being A Wallflower, from writer/director Stephen Chbosky, which begged the viewer to feel happy and sad simultaneously with friendship and tragedy. In 2015 audience were left to feel the struggles of loss and what it means to grow up in the elegantly crafted The Little Prince. This year, the movie that is baring its heart and soul is David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Lowery is able to take an otherwise silly childhood image, and by use of precisely lengthened shots, mold it into an emotion filled story which leaves the viewer questioning what it means to exist.
Literally and figuratively this movie goes through cycles. From a focus standpoint it starts off looking at M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck) as a couple. Audiences get to see the dynamic of their relationship through otherwise meaningless conversations demonstrating their comfortability and intimacy. Focus shifts to M, and the viewer gets to see her pain through the editing and long shots (more on that shortly). Through those shots the audience sees her grieving and gets to grieve with her. The editing helps establish the passage of time by showing M walk out the front door and is instantly back in the house heading out the front door. This cycle happens several times successively and demonstrates that M is dealing with the situation and moving on. After M, the film focuses on C who is now a sheet ghost (not a spoiler—it is what the movie is about). Viewers are shown his perspective and what it means to occupy space, and the attachments people have to spaces. This is achieved through C staying in the house for decades as the space transforms, as does he—becoming angrier, dirtier, and complacent. Without spoiling anything there will not be an explanation about how the films cycles through the focus at this point, but it does, and it is gorgeously crafted.
Back to the shots mentioned earlier. To start, this picture is shot in a unique ratio: 1.33:1 with rounded corners. Immediately this ratio gives the film a home-movie look and feel, which also adds to the feeling of intimacy throughout. A point that cannot be emphasized enough is that this film is top notch visual story telling. Lowery begins the film with long drawn-out scenes. For example, there is a scene in which M is eating a pie that lasts for several minutes. This establishes that the viewer is experiencing this moment and this sadness with M. It is unsettling, it is uncomfortable, and it is heartbreaking. Lowery continues to utilize long takes through the beginning of the film. As the movie progresses and time begins to speed up so does the length of the shots. Toward the end of the film there are cuts and flashbacks in rapid succession in comparison to the start of the movie to demonstrate the apex is coming.
Different length shots combined with the acting and the music create an atmosphere of eeriness and emptiness. Mara’s performance is realistic and grounded. She seems ready to move on from their house, because to her it is just a space. Affleck, who spends three quarters of the time under a sheet, is able to make his ghost emote. He uses long stares into corners and out windows to show his emptiness. He uses head turns and sweeping moments to show curiosity. He uses classic ghost motifs such as floating objects, flickering lights, and passing though walls to show anger and frustration. The sheet might seem silly at first, but as the movie progress it aids in creating a hollowness which is prevalent as the film continues. Music also assists in providing a tone to the picture. Daniel Hart’s composition is flooded with violin and captures the visual feel of the movie. Specifically the piece “The Secret In the Wall” is tear inducing even when listening to it on its own. Within the movie C is a musician and working on a song throughout. That song, “I Get Overwhelmed,” performed by Hart’s band Dark Rooms, fits to the visuals and the dynamic between C and M flawlessly, and is the perfect cap to this creative powerhouse.
As far as problems go there are not many. There is one lengthy exposition scene at a party which people might find too on the nose. But it also gives viewers context to what is going on in the rest of the film, so this could go either way. Another part people might find troublesome is the time frame. Again without spoiling anything, there is a time shift which is confusing and weird, although Lowry is able to reel it in and make sense of it in the climax.
Outside of those couple parts this movie is a masterpiece. Lowery and Affleck are able to bring life to a blank, faceless figure. They take something so innate to childhood and growing up and transform it into an art piece worth experiencing recurrently. And that is what this movie is: an art piece. It is more than a collection of scenes. It is more than solid performances. It is more than elegantly composed music. It is a culmination of all those thing combined to deliver a movie that reminds people (present company included) why they love movies, and why people like Lowery love to make them.
Further Viewing: Other A24 films.