As the reel began turning, light illuminated the Silver Screen and our main characters appear laying on a couch. However, I notice the film’s aspect ratio is 4:3 with rounded edges. My mind immediately began wondering if this were intentional and, yes, director David Lowery purposefully made me watch a tale of love, tragedy, time and humanity through a … viewfinder.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck cuddle on a sofa, laying together and clearly they’re in love. Smiles, intimacy and a lack of score help open A Ghost Story. Mara plays a wife ready to leave a house that we’re to believe is haunted. Not only because there’s a quote during the introduction from a piece of literature about a haunted house, but because there are random lightbulb flickers and piano keys being slammed throughout the house.
Affleck’s character, however, fancies this one-story home with lots of land between them and the next neighbor. When Mara asks, he explains he likes the house because of its history. This is an introverted man. He’s quiet, loves his wife and is a musician — he produces a song we hear later on in the film.
There’s a sense of dread that lasts from the moment the ghost appears on-screen. This isn’t a scary, CGI ghost. This is simply an actor underneath a white sheet with two eyeholes. This is, also, not a ghost that scares its audience, unless plates being tossed and a small glass of milk being picked up spooks your soul.
A Ghost Story is a film that, if you can get through the first 30 minutes, your patience is rewarded. Take your usual summertime film expectations and throw them in the back burner. Lowery directs a film right up A24’s alley — artistic in nature and complex once its layers are peeled. The ghost does not represent horror, even if the film sometimes embodies basic horror elements during a dining room sequence. On the contrary, the ghost offers a lesson for those who can’t move on after death (a supernatural door opens for the ghost at one point, which it ignores in favor of returning to the home).
Very early on does the film throw a curveball, which creates a jarring shift in tone. This shocked me back to life after Lowery forced you to examine long, lingering shots. I didn’t mind the moments where I observed cuddling and kisses shared between the married couple for almost five minutes, in which Mara needed to be comforted after hearing creepy noises late at night. Lowery forces you to watch this play out naturally and ward off questions in your head like, “When is something going to happen?”
Mara and Affleck are just fine in their ability to carry scenes together, but I believe Mara bested the latter. While not the best moment of the film, Mara controls a scene where she simply eats a pie made by a friend during her time of grieving. As she sits on the kitchen floor, Lowery fixates the camera on her and lingers for the duration of her eating almost the entire pie, then throwing up all while the ghost watches. But the camera never moves, and we study Mara. A single tear trickles down the bridge of her nose, but we don’t need a score to tell us to be sad — the human connection bridges the emotional gap on its own.
I felt connected to the characters, but especially Mara’s, thanks to her wonderful acting and storytelling through body language. Affleck kept on with his low voice that verges on mumbling, and it worked just fine, but this wasn’t his show to steal.
There’s hardly any dialogue in crucial moments throughout the film; most times where I expected heavy dialogue there was just acting with eyes and a reliance on silence or score. I can appreciate a film that trusts its actors to lay their hearts out onto the floor and let the looks on their faces do the talking.
I was not entertained, and I mean that in a most endearing fashion. The most action this film expresses is a brutal car crash not even seen on-screen. There weren’t explosions and special effects trying to capture my attention, which is something you rarely find during the summertime. It was a treat to witness Lowery play with silence and a most unique score at times.
A Ghost Story challenged my views on life and film, alike. This was a unique departure from the heels of Lowery’s first big film, Pete’s Dragon, which was surprisingly fine for adults. It feels no time was wasted during its short-ish runtime and is a treat for those who fancy the mature side of filmmaking.
Give it a go, leave your expectations at the door and open your mind for A Ghost Story. As for the reason for the viewfinder look — that’s for you to decide.
A big thank-you to Allied Marketing and A24 for an advanced press screening of “A Ghost Story” for the purposes of this review.
“A Ghost Story” is rated R, runs 1 hour and 32 minutes and opens nationwide across North America on July 28, 2017.