I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again – A24 is one of the best film distributors working today. Titles such as Moonlight, Under The Skin, Swiss Army Man and The Lobster have all been up there as some of my favourites of their respective years. Every single one of their releases has been so incredibly original and fresh. A24 have a couple of films at Sydney Film Festival this year. I was fortunate enough to see A Ghost Story and Good Time, which are my favourites of the festival.
The film begins with a nameless couple, played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. They live a cosy, quiet life inside of a suburban household. When Affleck’s character passes away, his ghost returns to watch over the house that they lived in – a dramatic take on the ‘haunted house’ trope. But this film does not just cover a few weeks of the girl’s grieving – it literally follows the whole history, and future, of the house. That is all I will say about the plot of the film for now, as there is a lot more that should be experienced first hand.
This film is dimensional and layered; subtle and poetic. Despite it’s minimalist, quiet nature, this film delivers a fierce depiction of grief, death and the enormous, cyclical nature of time. This is by far the most original film I’ve seen so far this year.
The most discussed aspect of the film is the presentation of the ghost. Rather than Patrick Swayze, bathing in light, this film chooses to depict the ghost as the classic halloween costume – a figure covered in bedsheets, with two holes for eyes. When the ghost appeared onscreen for the first time, the women seated behind me sighed “Oh, come on”, but then over the course of the film, must’ve realised that it worked, since I didn’t hear anything again. Despite the lack of features or defining characteristics, there is something really expressive about the way that the bedsheets twist, stretch and flow.
However, the most impressive aspect of A Ghost Story is the filmmaking. David Lowery has previously directed Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and has recently been slated as the director of the upcoming Peter Pan film. The cinematography is shot in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, with very peculiar curved edges that I haven’t seen in a film before. All of the shots are gorgeously composed, and camera movement is used to both immerse the audience, and also to possibly mimic the slow, fluid movement of the ghost. The editing is patient, yet perfect in pacing the dialogue, and juxtaposing shots from different points in time. The long takes in this film are breathtaking. Many shots will last for five or six minutes, unbroken, usually focusing on Rooney Mara in her grieving process. The combination of the production design, cinematography and direction create a very subtle, minimalist experience.
The score is woody, emotional and haunting – variations of a theme that become more layered, depending on the situation. I Get Overwhelmed by Dark Rooms – the song that is heavily featured in the film (supposedly written by Affleck’s character) – is a perfect summation of the longing and melancholic nature of the film. My favourite scene in the film is when Rooney Mara’s character listens to the song after he has passed away, and we flick back and forth between when he first showed her the song, and when is she sprawled out on her floor, with her earphones in – grieving.
This film is not just a ghost story, as the title may suggest. It’s a quiet meditation on the grieving process, death, existence and time. Lowery said that he was heavily inspired by the very surreal, Palme D’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which is also about similar themes, and shot in long, static shots. One of the most striking lines in that film is “Ghosts aren’t attached to places, but to people”. That’s where I expected the narrative of A Ghost Story to go, but instead it is very much about the history of the houses that ghosts haunt.
This film opens in cinemas soon, and you can bet that I’ll be seeing it again on the first day to analyse it further and relish in the pitch perfect filmmaking, performances and overall presentation of it. The film’s trailer is a perfect sample of the film’s odd, surreal tone – (watch here).
A Ghost Story screened at the Sydney Film Festival.