There is nothing festival critics enjoy more in a film than inscrutability, so it’s no wonder David Lowery’s latest emerged as the darling of this year’s Sundance. Lowery has no lack of credibility; his post-modern western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and downbeat Disney remake Pete’s Dragon were both offbeat enough to stand out from the usual mainstream fare, but the major plaudits are kept in the art house, and art’s no good if it’s easy to understand.
A Ghost Story haunts a plane somewhere between intellectually stimulating and plain confounding. This is a shame, because what it never is, yet what it really ought to be, is moving: there’s a devastating core to this film and it’s been obfuscated by self-consciously obtuse stylistic choices that smack of pretension.
Art-house territory is established immediately by the uncommon 4:3 aspect ratio, which is then further emphasised with rounded corners. The frame resembles the shape an old photograph or, for the less charitable, an Instagram filter.
There’s a devastating core to this film and it’s been obfuscated by self-consciously obtuse stylistic choices that smack of pretension
We’re introduced to a youngish couple who will, naturally, remain nameless, but are played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. They live in a dated, one-story, wood-panelled house somewhere in the American countryside, and from their minimal, mumbled conversations it’s apparent that these living circumstances are a source of conflict – she wants to move, he kind of likes the place. Still, they’re obviously also very much in love: in the first indication of the film’s artfully deliberate pacing, the camera holds firm in one long, unbroken take as the couple lie in bed together, kissing occasionally but mainly staring at each other. It’s sort of romantic, but it’s also sort of tedious.
The next morning the man is dead. His wife is at the hospital: she identifies his body, pulls a sheet over his head, and leaves. After another long, long take, the man beneath the sheets rises, transformed into a classic Halloween party ghost with two dark holes for eyes. He walks through the hospital, across empty fields, back to the house he used to share, where he watches his wife grieve, recover, pack up and move on. New residents come and go. The building is knocked down; a city develops. The ghost finds himself lost in time: one minute he’s in the Old West; the next back in his old home, watching himself; watching his own ghost watching himself.
This material would work as well as the basis of a Pixar animation as much a mournful arthouse curio, and it seems that, fearing universal appeal, Lowery has made it his mission to use every alienation technique in the experimental film-maker’s handbook.
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the obvious antecedent, thematically and stylistically. His film too could be heavy going, but it did at least feel like its more patience-testing elements were coming from a genuine and organic place; they lent the film it’s strange and ethereal atmosphere. A Ghost Story, by contrast, has all the method but none of the madness. What, ultimately, is achieved by a five-minute unbroken shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie? What starts as a touchingly banal detail of her character’s grief is, through sheer length, completely drained of its emotional resonance. When, after what seems like a third of the film’s entire running time, Mara runs to the toilet to vomit, the effect on the audience is not sympathy but relief.
Other incidents are expressly designed (or sabotaged) to provide maximum obscurity and minimised drama: the ghost turns poltergeist, lifting objects and smashing plates – but is met with apparent indifference; a running motif has the ghost trying to obtain a note left by his wife: but of course its contents are never revealed.
Lowery’s sophistication covers up a sentimental heart
The key to all this anti-drama arrives late in the film: the ghost looks on as his old home’s latest resident, a boozed-up philosophiser (the worst type of philosophiser there is) holds forth on his existential theory that while you might take comfort in art, all art, and perhaps even all comforts, are nevertheless futile because everyone and everything, including the planet, will die.
Though you doubt that this guy gets invited to many parties, the lot of the ghost, who in his past life was a musician, seems to bear out this depressing worldview. He travels through time, sees life in a Blade Runner-like future and the frontier West, before eventually ending up back where he started. And each time seems to witness only death.
But if the indifference of time and futility of all human endeavour really does inform the film’s central thesis, why is it delivered by such a pompous arse? Could it be that, in fact, Lowery doesn’t quite believe it? Like the hipster dickhead at the party, he’s using sophistication to cover up a sentimental heart; the intellectual distance he’s applied to every rounded corner of A Ghost Story can’t entirely disguise the sad, sweet tale that’s underneath.
It creeps through in Andrew Droz Palermo’s beautiful, crepuscular photography that recalls early Spielberg (imagine how he might have worked with the same material), and the understated, melancholy score by Daniel Hart. It’s in the strangely affecting hangdog expression of the ghosts’ eyes, and the rare light-hearted moments when he encounters a fellow phantom, dressed in a floral sheet, haunting the house next door.
If only he’d had the daring to follow through on the film’s obvious emotional heartbeat. A Ghost Story could have had audiences reaching for their hankies; instead they’ll only be reaching for their beards.