There's a thrill in seeing a filmmaker truly take a risk; it's even better when they manage to pull it off. A mournful meditation on love, loss, and the afterlife, "A Ghost Story" isn't the type of movie most directors would choose to follow their first big-budget, special effects-laden feature. But that's what David Lowery decided to make after his family-friendly "Pete's Dragon" for Disney. And I'm thankful he did.
With "A Ghost Story," Lowery explores the mysteries of the universe, as seen through the eyes of a married couple played by the director's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" stars, Casey Affleck (whose character is listed in the closing credits only as "C") and Rooney Mara (credited as "M"). When C dies in a car accident, he comes back in the form of a ghost -- covered in a long white sheet, with two black holes for eyes -- returning to the home he and M once shared to silently watch his bereaved wife grieve and try to move on.
It's a film that's intimate in scale but vast in ambition, and there was every chance in the world that it would end up being an absolute disaster. Instead, "A Ghost Story" becomes one of most thrillingly audacious bits of filmmaking you'll see this year.
"A Ghost Story" is at its heart a haunted house movie, and though it never aims to be scary, Lowery occasionally plays with the iconography of a traditional horror film. For a brief section of the story, Affleck's character even becomes a poltergeist, tossing around furniture and terrifying the humans he comes into contact with.
The ghost itself is a ridiculous image -- resembling a child's Halloween costume -- that Lowery gradually imbues with a profound sense of loneliness as C wanders silently from room to room, and eventually across all of eternity as time stretches out before him. In the film's most talked about scene, C observes M binge eat nearly an entire pie in one five-minute shot. It's a moment of intense grief that goes by agonizingly slowly.
Later, years and even centuries pass terrifyingly in the blink of an eye. In the illusory nature of time, there's no controlling how fast or slowly time moves: the moments we want to hold onto seem to be gone too fast, while the less important ones feel like they take forever.
Attempting to explain the ideas behind the film makes it sound like heady stuff, but there's a playfulness to Lowery's direction that keeps it from feeling as ponderous as it might have in someone else's hands. There's a few deadpan laughs, as C comes into contact with another ghost, and the two have an amusingly stilted conversation in subtitles.
The evocative, string-heavy score by Daniel Hart blends electronic elements with folk and chant to form an unsettling soundscape that moves from shimmering lightness to apocalyptic dread. It even incorporates an original song, which plays a critical role as the narrative progresses.
Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shoots the film in a square 1.33:1 aspect ratio with rounded off edges, and there's a slightly worn quality to the image that hints at the sense of nostalgia at the heart of the film. The tight framing boxes C's ghost in, while making the film feel like watching an old home movie or flipping through a photo album.
Both are ways to document the things we think of as essential in our lives while we're living it. We place value in these physical objects; they speak to our need for reminders of where and who we were, and the things that meant something to us. But they're also a reminder of how inadequate those attempts at preservation ultimately are: everything eventually fades.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct the movie's aspect ratio.