The Films of 2017: A Ghost Story

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” a tip-off that this will not be a supernatural thriller in the vein of, say, Poltergeist.  Moody, pensive, and spare, it’s not out to sting you with jump scares.  Rather, it meditates on such subjects as the nature of death, the passage of time, and the ephemeral traces left behind by the departed.  The ghost in question is a recently deceased musician, C (Casey Affleck), who during his life shared a shabby little ranch house in rural Texas with his partner M (Rooney Mara).  After he’s killed in a car accident C’s spirit returns to the house draped in a white sheet, silently looking on as M mourns for him.  Eventually she sells the house and moves away, leaving him behind, at which point the film takes a series of completely unexpected turns, its plot ranging across vast distances of time and space along with its restless central figure. 

All of this sounds like it could be unbearably lofty and pretentious, and I’ll admit that I was initially resistant to the use of that white sheet, which seemed like the twee contrivance of an amateur filmmaker.  But this is a ghost story told entirely in earnest, and Lowery proves himself remarkably sure-footed in his command of what is extremely tricky material.  Somewhat like Under the Skin or Her, A Ghost Story tackles big questions about identity and existence but grounds them in the most intimate of spaces and moments.  For all its grand philosophizing, A Ghost Story is about the relationship of an individual soul to a particular place—that shabby ranch house with peeling paint and outdated kitchen cabinets and an out-of-tune piano in one corner, which compels C throughout his life and to which he keeps returning after his death.

Affleck and Mara are perfectly keyed into the melancholy, aching tone of the film, much of which unfolds in intensely quiet long takes.  Considering that Affleck spends nearly the entire film not only silent but also hidden behind a shroud, his performance is surprisingly affecting and subtle in its physicality.  Meanwhile, nearly all of Mara’s acting happens on her face; it’s devastating just watching her as she listens to one of C’s compositions through a pair of headphones.  Every element of the production is in sync with Lowery’s vision, right down to a mysterious and lovely score by Daniel Hart and delicately modulated cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo.  Perhaps more than anything else A Ghost Story is superb in evoking a sense of place as a site of shared history.  Mara and Affleck—with help from Lowery and his talented production team—manage to convince us that those people really live in that house, which looks modest and ordinary and yet feels uncanny.  By the end of the film it has become as familiar to us as it is to its inhabitants, a miniature world thick with memories…and, yes, haunted.

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