What happens when we die? The concept of the afterlife has fueled many critical and commercial successes across a variety of genres. Most often, one of the central human questions turns into a soapy or sentimental drama. How many movie weepies have we seen about a couple torn apart by the death of one member of the couple? “A Ghost Story” seems to be another entry into this well worn, but dependable genre. However, like most A24 produced pictures, the film is far from what it seems to be on the surface. Instead, its a powerful story of time as it applies to death and moving on.
The basic plot of “A Ghost Story” feels oddly familiar for how distinct of a film it actually is. A man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car accident and decides not to move on to the afterlife. Instead, he hangs about his home and watches over his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). It seems he wants closure. However, as is the case for her, closure appears to be out of reach. Clad only in a white sheet and invisible to the naked eye, the man struggles with whether to make his presence know and how to involve himself in the world of the living. Giving away more would spoil the hidden joys of a film that takes a bit to get into. Yet, all good films are worth a bit of work.
Writer/director David Lowery emerges as even more of a confident filmmaker with this project. While “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” announced a strong visionary, the film itself didn’t emerge as much more than an incredible cinematography reel. That film also happened to star Affleck and Mara. Both are strong in this film, even as they have less to do on the surface. Mara, in particular, commands the screen with a silent, and much more complex and conflicted, vision of grief. This time around, the star is Lowery, who is able to let the visuals push the story to the forefront, rather than let them become the star attraction.
It will be hard to top the score done by Daniel Hart. Much like in silent cinema, music acts as the primary driving force of the film. Hart manages to use a particular pieces of music in varying ways depending on the events unfolding. It’s astounding how similar sounds paired with different scenes can produce powerful and new emotions. Much of this stems from the central song of the film, “I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms. It’s a fantastic song that springboards the emotional through line for the film. Even the sound design elevates a film that doesn’t possess many entry points for an audience to get invested. Hart feels as much of a storyteller in this piece as writer/director David Lowery. I’m already bracing myself for heartache when the score is either snubbed or deemed ineligible.
Crafting a nearly silent picture that almost solely focuses on a traditional ghost in a white sheet is quite ambitious. Many times critics love to heap praise on a film solely on the scope of this ambition. In some ways, ambition helps cloud the shakier moments of the film. There’s a certain remove that can make it tough for people to invest in the metaphysical interpretation of the afterlife. In fact, the first half embodies quite a few indie movie tropes amped up on ambiguity, so much so that many in the audience can’t help but chuckle. One of the few scenes of dialogue midway through the film so baldly pontificates points the movie had done a great job alluding to. However, even as the movie seems to misstep, it readjusts itself only to get stronger as it goes on.
Much like the central ghost, one has to take the good and bad that is thrown at them. The flaws and uneven nature don’t betray the strong core that Lowery has constructed. Many won’t enjoy the film. It’s not a passive moviegoing experience and benefits from an initial suspension of disbelief. However, what makes the film work is its meditation on the relationship between the dead and time. By the closing reels of the film, one finds themselves unexpectedly overcome. “A Ghost Story” is hardly your traditional ghost story. However, who wants traditional anyways?
“A Ghost Story” is currently in limited release.