Poignant Meditations

After his big-budget Disney escapade Pete’s Dragon, writer-director David Lowery returns to the margins with this experimental tale of life, death and loss. The title is both entirely descriptive and subtly misleading; A Ghost Story is not a horror film, and the spirit at its centre is not present to scare, moan or rattle chains. Rather, this is a slow-burning and poignant meditation on love everlasting – one that takes huge risks with its central conceit.

Reuniting with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who previously starred in Lowery’s low-budget debut Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), Lowery’s story begins as a married couple, only known as C (Affleck) and M (Mara), debate whether to move from their small ranch-style house in Texas. She wants to go, he wants to stay. Not long afterwards, in a typically audacious and jarring cut, C is glimpsed dead at the wheel of his car. With C on the slab, his ghost rises, leaving the hospital and heading for home.

C’s spirit is depicted with just a white sheet with holes cut out for eyes, like a budget Halloween costume. Deliberately low-fi, it looks faintly ridiculous – and yet Lowery overcomes this. As C arrives to keep watch over M, the effect is strangely beguiling. One extended scene sees Mara’s distraught character slumped on the floor, eating her way through a large chocolate pie, trying to stem her grief with calories. Gradually, you become aware that the ghostly C is standing there in the corner of the room. How long has he been there? It’s impossible to say.

There is almost eerie elegance to how C is depicted, the way he moves. At times, it feels like a spiritual companion to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, with angels perched on the buildings of Berlin and eavesdropping inhabitants. As the film unfolds, so does the notion of time – with C sent backwards in history. Witnessing a 19th century pioneer family in the same house, it’s as if he’s losing his grip on the present, increasingly unable to remain in M’s realm as she gradually pulls her life together.

Scored with Daniel Hart’s mournful song I Get Overwhelmed, Lowery maintains a melancholy tone throughout. The very antithesis to the schmaltz of Ghost, there are to be no pottery scenes to be watched here. Rather, A Ghost Story is shorn of sentiment, as Lowery conjures a lyrical exploration of the ways in which we says goodbye to loved ones. With dialogue often replaced by gesture, movement and the odd subtitle, it’s an impressively radical work.

James Mottram

A Ghost Story opens in cinemas on 11 August. For more information: www.a24films.com

1. Trailer for A Ghost Story. Courtesy of A24 Films.