Movie Review: Memories are human after all in David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’
Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery
Stars: Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara
Synopsis: In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.
It is believed by some (perhaps many) that there is a life and an existence beyond the physical; what’s unknown is what sense of humanity (if any) crosses over with us. Are our experiences and emotions still similarly felt? Are they continually shared alongside other beings? Or is it an absence of feeling? Perhaps this inhuman experience is still a human one after all, and it is that exploration in humanity that permeates through David Lowery’s (Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) A Ghost Story, and out-of-body fable and meditation on the passage of time, closure, grief, and commemoration.
Sounds familiar to you? Perhaps this has become the formula for many “ghost films” these days, but Lowery flips the traditional ghost story notions on its head, reversing the polarity of their typically hokey messages that the memory and legacy of those who have passed on will live forever. Not only have these notions of memorial immortality become tiresome, but I question the validity in it. Does it really last, or is our legacy as mortal as our human selves? A Ghost Story states that perhaps it’s not just our ability to endure and preserve our legacy, but knowing that memories eventually die is maybe the closure we need to hear. It is also downright beautiful.
“Beautiful” may leave you in a head-scratch, especially if you’re familiar with the plot of A Ghost Story. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara portray a loving couple, living together in what appears to be rural Texas. Affleck dies in a tragic accident, but chooses to remain a watchful eye as an out-of-body entity, complete with a child-like bedsheet and scissor-cut holes for eyes (surprisingly, there’s actually a narrative and medical reasoning for this). It’s a recognizably silly concept, something David Lowery himself is arguably aware of too, and yet the film achieves a striking balance in relishing in its weirdness while also transcending it. I already mentioned how Lowery inverts our preconceived notions of traditional ghost stories, and he continuously does that by turning A Ghost Story into more than just a meditation, but also an observation.
Affleck remains as a watchful eye on his lost love that continues for decades, experiencing time’s ultimate cruelty, observing without the ability to act (well, despite a few angry outbursts involving some kitchenware). As the audience, Lowery forces us to do the same thing; we connect with our central ghost as a mortal being (I swear I felt him emoting through those hole-cut eyes) and observe with him. We look for things hidden that may provide new meaning. We feel the weight of time through Affleck’s conversation with another ghost also awaiting closure; the use of subtitles could’ve backfired horribly, but instead maintains the film’s calmness. And that’s the strength in how A Ghost Story continuously transcends, in its favoring of patience and tranquility above all else (through its use of various long takes), and appropriately so, when time itself is arguably your main antagonist.
And for its sheer minimalistic approach, the film is a technical marvel in its own way. Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography and boxed-in aspect ratio creates an aura of imprisonment, and is still strikingly gorgeous in its emptiness. Daniel Hart’s score is pivotal in backing the film’s realism, and is arguably one of the best scores of the entire year; not to mention Hart’s own band Dark Rooms and their symbolically beautiful song “I Get Overwhelmed” (heard in both the film and its trailer). Then there’s Rooney Mara’s delicate performance; many will come out of A Ghost Story talking about the already infamous pie-eating scene, in which Mara devours an entire pie for over 5 minutes, in an uncut and stationary shot. We observe as Affleck’s ghost observes, and eventually witness a progression from guilt to punishment to grief, and that seamless escalation is beyond magnetic. It’s a moment many won’t soon forget (including Affleck’s ghost, despite his now inhuman existence), and that notion of forgetting is where A Ghost Story won me over.
It takes a lot for a film to elicit such wonderment in its audience, and in my case I found myself actively digging for repressed memories I may have forgotten during my lifetime. Not for nostalgia’s sake, but to see if I had the ability to do so. But failing to rekindle with such memories never feels like failure, but is instead something natural; A Ghost Story’s main moral is to inform of the mortality of remembrance, and as a result I was nearly weeping through much of the film’s back half. Memory as a human conflict parallels both worlds (our world and the next), and deliberately so, as the film’s final moments show the inevitability of forgetting; it depicts an ancient story of its own legacy that has been lost in time, as well as a moment shared between Affleck and Mara that Affleck’s ghost has already forgotten took place. All we can do is endure, in this life or the next. But would that make it any less human?