A Ghost Story (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An atypical ghost story

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“A Ghost Story” is not your average ghost story. Although it may initially look ridiculous due to its rather goofy premise, the movie slowly comes to engage us as its unconventional narrative rolls along with its ghost hero, and it ultimately comes to us a haunting poetic meditation on loss, grief, and that aching brevity of human existence. It is difficult to describe to you how the movie effortlessly explorers its ideas and feelings on the screen, but I will try as much as I can here for convincing you to watch one of the most interesting films of this year.

During its 10 minutes, we are introduced to ‘C’ (Casey Affleck) and ‘M’ (Rooney Mara), a young couple living in a suburban area of Texas. Although C has been struggling in his musician career, he and his wife are happy together in their cozy house, and that is evident from the first two scenes of the film, which are imbued with warm intimacy thanks to the natural chemistry between its two lead performers.

However, on one day, C dies because of an unfortunate car accident, and we soon see M looking over her husband’s dead body at a local hospital. After she leaves the scene along with an accompanying doctor, the camera keeps looking at C’s body from the distance, and then a strange thing happens. We see C slowly getting up, but he is a ghost now, and that is pretty clear to us as he is not noticed by anyone despite being shrouded in white sheet with two holes for his eyes. When a white shiny portal is opened up in front of him, he does not go inside that portal, and he chooses to go to his house instead.

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As haunting his house, he wordlessly watches his wife going through a long period of grief alone in the house. In one particular scene involved with a pie brought by an acquaintance of hers, we can sense her deep grief even though she does not say anything, and Rooney Mara, who has steadily risen since her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), did a commendable job of conveying to us her character’s quiet heartbreak. This scene could look silly, but she ably carries it with palpable emotions, and I was a bit amused to learn later that she only did one take when this scene was shot (you will know why when you see it).

M tries to move on, but many things in the house frequently remind her of her dead husband. At one point, she comes to the house with some guy, but she decides not to go to the next step. Of course, C watches everything as he continues to be in their house, and there eventually comes a moment when he indirectly expresses his anger to his wife.

Now some of you probably think you can see where the story is heading, but director/writer/editor David Lowery, who previously debuted with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), goes for more profound and unexpected things as pushing the promise of his story further. For example, I liked a small humorous moment involved with what C happens to glimpse from a house right next to his house, and I also appreciated a nice variation of genre conventions presented later in the story.

Above all, as constantly sticking to C’s viewpoint, the movie gives us that fleeting sense of the passage of time. Time seems to go a lot faster than before while C moves around here and there in the house, and the house accordingly goes through numerous changes. His wife finally decides to leave the house for moving onto what will be next in her remaining life. A family soon moves into the house as its new residents but then leaves not long after that. The house later becomes populated with many different people who come there for a drinking party, and we get a sublime scene as one of them muses on human existence and its legacy, which may ultimately signify nothing when the universe comes to the end but means something at least while we are still alive on our planet.

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As adamantly following its narrative logics, the movie provides us more unexpected things during its last 20 minutes, and the result is very poignant in a way I will not describe here in details. All I can say about that part is that I admire a lot how it eventually arrives at its neat ending, which features something as worthy of discussion as the last scene of “Lost in Translation” (2003).

The movie is also impressive in technical aspects. Shot in 1.33:1 ratio, the movie often feels stuffy, but Lowery and his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo always hold our attention through their deft handling of lighting and scene composition, and there are several excellent moments reminiscent of that natural beauty of Terrence Malick’s works. While usually maintaining its low-key attitude, the score by composer Daniel Hart, who previously collaborated with Lowery in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Pete’s Dragon” (2016), becomes a little more prominent at times, and I was especially entertained by when a certain famous classical music piece is used on the soundtrack.

Although it will require some patient from us as your average arthouse film, “A Ghost Story” is quite a rewarding experience on the whole, and it confirms again that Lowery is a talented filmmaker to watch. Even when he quickly moved up to mainstream filmmaking in “Pete’s Dragon”, he retains his own cinematic sensibility shown from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”, and he easily returns to his usual ground here in “A Ghost Story”. I don’t know what will be next in his promising filmmaking career, but I think we can have some expectation on that.

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