(Dir: David Lowery, 2017)
An anecdote to start with. Upon sitting down in the cinema it was noted there were two early teen boys sitting further down the row. That seemed a little surprising at first. Did they know what they were getting themselves in for? Perhaps they were young cineastes? Or did they see the excellent poster and the 12A certificate and think, "Yes! We can spend Tuesday evening watching a horror film!"? Within all of five minutes they were restless and distracted by their phones anad each other, suggesting the latter option must've been so. Surprisingly they lasted nearly an hour before leaving. All this is to say that A Ghost Story is resolutely not a horror film, at least not in the traditional sense, and it's willful abandoning of the basics of conventional storytelling will be trying for some.
In the most literal sense this is a ghost story, as we follow C (Casey Affleck) who has returned home after his death, invisible to all and underneath a white sheet containing only deep black eyeholes. This still figure exudes a subtle creepiness, always lurking in the background watching and waiting, seemingly devoid of humanity. But the real horror is existential, as the fragility of life is felt alongside the fear of how and whether we are remembered by those who love us/we love. It's an inexorably sad film as the grief in the first half is presented as plainly as it's felt, enhancing the rawness and making it easier to transplant it to your own life. Rooney Mara is very good as C's wife M, seemingly a little adrift with life before becoming grief-stricken by the loss of C. At moments this can feel over-played thanks to the unconventional approach – your ability to handle a five minute scene of M doing nothing but eating a pie in anguish will be a gauge of how much you might appreciate the film.
Being shot in 1:33:1 format gives A Ghost Story an almost home movie quality, creating an intimacy with the characters and a strange sense that we're looking through a window at something that actually happened. There are moments in the second half that don't suit this style, but by this point it has transcended into a meditation on love in unexpected and obtuse ways. Not being conventional or doing what you expect are part of the film's charm. Director David Lowery clearly never intended for this to be a straight forward watch, hence the direction the story takes, the sparing use of dialogue and long takes of seemingly inconsequential moments that build the mood of the film. It's occasionally frustrating, and no doubt more so if you're not expecting it. What makes it work is how effectively it sets the tone of sadness in the first half before diving deep into a fascinating rabbit hole, all the while traversing a subtle line of creepiness. It's a love it / hate it type of film – just don't go into it expecting the same thing those teenage boys were.