‘A Ghost Story’ Sundance London Review: A Tiny Film with Cosmic Implications

David Lowery’s ‘Pete’s Dragon’ follow-up, starring previous collaborators Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, is a strange and immense micro-budget feature about life after death and the places we call home.

By Orla Smith

Fading in and out of focus, a couple. The moment is a blip in the immensity of their lives, but it’s almost all of what we’re allowed to witness. Huddled on the sofa together, they talk about memories of places, and self-preservation. Cut into their exchange is a sky full of stars that expands far beyond the limited frame of their lives.

Before two cars collide and the life of C (Casey Affleck) is cut brutally short, we’re only able to peer into his life with wife M (Rooney Mara) two times. One is those glimpses of them over the opening credits, the other the two of them lying wordlessly in bed together, seen from above in one of the film’s several takes that lingers on a moment for a length of time that seems, in the moment, almost like a challenge. Afterwards, knowing what we know, and knowing what will happen the moment we leave those cosy frames behind, each extra second devoted to watching the two of them in bed – curling closer and closer until they’re cocooned together like one entity – is one we long to cling onto, just as C spends every moment of his extended afterlife wishing to go back to that simple comfort.

In this 87 minute film – which somehow manages to encapsulate the whole of life, the universe and everything – a disproportionately miniscule amount of time (in a movie which is all about the stuff) is devoted to setting up the relationship that we spend the rest of the film mourning. Structurally, it’s eerily similar to David Lowery’s 2013 masterpiece ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’, which also separates Mara and Affleck within the first five minutes, and in both films he manages to make those few scenes mean the entire world. You feel the whole of their relationship, because those moments Lowery chooses to show us are acutely specific, acted in an intimate whisper by the two stars.

But where ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ flowed like a song with the aesthetic and structural freedom of a Terrence Malick film, ‘A Ghost Story’ at first seems to be the polar opposite. The camera is locked off, the colours warm and muted. The characters are trapped within a 4:3 frame with rounded edges – it feels like watching a moving photograph, faded and worn by the ravages of time.

However, ‘A Ghost Story’ is anything but predictable. Even after it had been made, nobody saw it coming: the film was produced in secret on a micro-budget after Lowery finished editing his Disney blockbuster ‘Pete’s Dragon’ last summer. The incognito production acted as a buffer to failure.

‘A Ghost Story’ is like nothing you’ve ever seen before – the most accurate comparison I could make is a DIY ‘The Tree of Life’ – and the idea of transposing it from a shapeless idea to a movie screen was doubtlessly a daunting one. Be thankful it didn’t get scrapped, because it’s rare to see a film that so defies expectation. For those who’ve yet to see it, be assured that whatever you think this film is, it’s something completely different. If you’re 40 minutes into the film, know that what you think it is now is a world away from what you’ll think it is another 40 minutes later.

It’s not a star vehicle for Rooney Mara either – the prominence that I expected her to have was somewhat dwarfed by the film’s ideas and aesthetics, but the closer you look, the clearer it becomes that she’s giving one of the best performances of her career, whether or not the film is interested in highlighting it. When it premiered at Sundance in January, almost nothing was know about ‘A Ghost Story’, and there were two things that everyone came out talking about: one of them was the fact that this film contains a five minute (plus?) static take of Mara consuming a pie (reports that it was an entire pie are misleading – that would take a lot longer than five minutes – but rest assured, she eats a hell of a lot of pie).

While that scene is dwarfed by the enormity of the film that follows, to the point that it’ll likely be the last thing on your mind when it finishes, it’s still a significant choice, and one that pays off tenfold. The bulk of Mara’s job in the film is to show her character’s process of grieving, and her take feels like a challenge to almost every other actor who’s attempted the same task before her. To the credit of the stars of melodramas of years past, their over-the-top sobbing is often in keeping with the mood of over-the-top movies. ‘A Ghost Story’ is as quiet as quiet gets, and when Mara is required to cry, her desperate, aimless sniffles as she blindly chews on forkful after forkful of pie, feel authentically heartbreaking.

There was another thing on everyone’s tongue at Sundance… this is no ordinary ghost. Affleck’s body rises from underneath the hospital sheet under which he lies dead, and the sheet goes with him. Instead of fading the actor into transparency, or allowing him to keep his original form, he walks the earth after death in the same dress as a kid walking the streets at Halloween. Make of that what you will – and many, if not all of you, will laugh – but it’s amazing how well this bizarre conceit works. ‘A Ghost Story’ is a rustic film about the places we call home. C’s house is quaint and spare, and while (before his death) M got him to reluctantly agree to leave it for somewhere more modern, he clings to the ramshackle comfort it brings him. That aspect of his life follows him after death, embodied by the hasty design of his spectral presence.

Every now and again, a film comes along that cannot be replicated. A film that is undeniable. One that refuses to be forgotten. To the surprise of no-one, this year that film is brought to us by A24, the studio that has managed to gain and maintain their unparalleled reputation over only a few years of existence by delivering films that add something invaluable to the cinematic landscape. They are an unstoppable force because they value originality and daring. We love them because they offer us filmmaking that doesn’t just stop at acceptability; ‘A Ghost Story’ is filmmaking that reaches into unknown heights and finds something majestic, beautiful and immense. It’s a tiny capsule for the whole of the world. Along with the likes of ‘Synecdoche, New York’ and the collected works of Don Hertzfeldt, it is one of the only films we have that is able to articulate the very particular pain and beauty that comes along with living and dying on planet Earth. It’s one to treasure.

Rating: 4.5/5

‘A Ghost Story’ will be released in UK cinemas on 11th August

 

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