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Film Review: A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017; Directed by David Lowery)

David Lowery’s spectral and tender supernatural art-film tragedy A Ghost Story is painfully, realistically tangible and grandly, metaphorically imaginative in alternating doses. In broad strokes, the film may strike the uninitiated as silly in its premise: a man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car crash and becomes a standard-issue Halloween-costume-style, white-sheet-with-eyeholes-cut-out-of-it ghost, haunting the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara). Unseen and unable to interact with her or with anyone else living, the ghost watches – silently, impassively, featureless – her raw, paralyzing grief give way to a return to routine and eventually to a life away from him and his fading memory.

The early passages of A Ghost Story detail their domestic life, with Affleck and Mara (who co-starred in Lowery’s festival-circuit indie breakthrough, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) settling into a realistic, charismatic ease in each other’s presence. She’s ready to move to another, better house, but he’s a musician and likes the old piano that came with the house, and perhaps its acoustics and comforting countours as well; when he agrees to move at last, they caress tenderly in bed, but he dies before they can complete the move together.

When she does move away and the ghost is not able to follow, A Ghost Story transcends the moving intimacy of its initial act and becomes something something more eerily cosmic and symbolically metaphysical. A Spanish-speaking family takes residence, until the ghost petulantly poltergeists them into vacating in fear. As the ghost scrapes at a crack in a wall, trying to retrieve a note his wife left there, a subsequent owner holds a lively party. There, at the kitchen table over drinks, a man (credited as Prognosticator and played by indie-folk prophet Will Oldham) expounds cleverly but self-negatingly about the pitiless ravages of time, how even the greatest legacy of human cultural patrimony (his example is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which distinctly interrupts Daniel Hart’s moody, affecting score as he speaks) will be wiped away by the (very) long-term advance of cosmic spacetime.

The house is demolished soon after this contextualizing monologue (easily the most sustained dialogue in Lowery’s beautifully spare film), to be replaced by a cityscape of gleaming skyscrapers. But then, in a temporal twist, the ghost returns to the past, witnessing a family of white pioneers begin to put down stakes on the site of his future home, only to be massacred by Native Americans. The ghost then waits until his living-man form returns to the home with the woman he loves, and plays a role (purposeful? inadvertent?) in the tragic path of their lives.

A Ghost Story is a lovely, symbolically rich meditation on the dull ache of passing time, on draining memory and fleeting remembrance. One fancies it even contains a sketched critique of America in that temporal jump in the pre-chorus prior to its final circle-closing coda, suggesting a scarlet thread between contemporary impersonal techno-capitalism and the precarious annexation project of colonization. But at a bedrock level, it’s a film of astute mournful poetry and elegiac sadness and loss. Like a ghost, it haunts and lingers.

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