Film / Theatre Reviews

Galway Film Fleadh: A Ghost Story


The last film David Lowery wrote and directed, 2013’s Southern crime mood piece Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, caught some critical flak for its obvious debts to Terrence Malick’s whispery, wheat-swaying-in-the-sun photography. More than one review noted its promise, but emphasized Lowery’s need to find his own voice. Four years later, after a stint at Disney directing the live-action Pete’s Dragon, Lowery is back in the auteurish game, with a film seemingly designed to answer the charge of unoriginality. Even by A24’s idiosyncratic standards, A Ghost Story is a strange, alienating and singular piece of cinema. To give Lowery his due, it’s like no other recent movie. It’s absolutely worth seeing. Also, you might hate it.

The audacity of the premise is part of the appeal, so you’re best diving in without knowing much in advance. So, fair warning. Still here? Okay, here’s the gist: Casey Affleck (“C”) and Rooney Mara (“M”) play a nameless couple living in a suburban, small-town, one-story house somewhere in America. He’s a musician, sensitive but a little withdrawn; despite disagreements about whether or not to move (she wants to go; but he’s drawn the place), they have an easy, loving chemistry. But C has a sudden car accident outside his home, revealed in the film’s typically casual manner, and is killed immediately.

At the hospital his corpse sits up from the metal table, body draped in a starched-clean white morgue sheet, and makes his trek back home, apparently invisible to the still-living, the long sheet punctuated by cut-out eyeholes, like a Halloween costume from lazy, last-minute parents. Visually, the sheet effect is comical but also kind of spectacular, lending itself to absurdity, pathos and the odd tinge of haunting horror. The aerial shot of the white avatar traversing the country landscape is both ridiculous and evocative, one for the end-of-year highlight reels.

Back in the house, the ghost is unable to communicate to his beloved, apart from vague poltergeist disturbances in moments of heated frustration. Otherwise, he just stands around, watching M deal with the bereavement and eventually moving on. Seemingly trapped in the location, awaiting a reprieve of duty, all he can do is silently observe, an invisible houseguest for the place’s rotating occupancy, as the people, and eventually the physical architecture itself, shift and transform around him.

A Ghost Story commits admirably, even recklessly, to its atmosphere of existential drift, showing a rare willingness to challenge audience comfort levels. A long unbroken shot of a grieving M slumped on the kitchen floor, devouring an entire homemade pie and surveilled by her statue-like spectre, provoked nervous, baffled giggles at the Film Fleadh, an audience with presumably high art-house tolerance. But when you settle in, the film’s rhythms become compelling, flowing across time gaps with smooth transitions. In the tightly controlled geography and Polaroid-style, boxed 1:33:1 aspect ratio, we are stuck with the bedsheet ghoul on his solitary vigil, participants in the ocular daisy chain. Layered moods creep in and a surprising formal and emotional immersion takes hold.

A monologue from a party guest (Jonny Mars), the most substantial dialogue in a deeply quiet movie, a rather on-the-nose diatribe about the ultimate disposability of memory and legacy, signals some of what the film is getting at: the loneliness of the heartbroken, the nagging endurance of love and the beautiful boredom of things that are forced to last. A silly and profound haunting. Conor Smyth

A Ghost Story was screened as part of the Galway Film Fleadh and is due for UK release on 11th August.

Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.