David Lowery’s A Ghost Story before the Sundance Film Festival even began puts A24 in a tight position because while this avant-garde poltergeist drama certainly fits their pedigree, it’s going to have a very difficult time finding an audience. It’s likely going to cause riots in any crowd expecting a horror movie, as this is a piece centered around quiet atmosphere and poetic imagery above all else. These ghosts aren’t scary or friendly, they’re just there.
The story follows the temporal journey of a man only credited as C (Casey Affleck) who tragically dies in a head-on collision. His spirit awakens underneath a morgue blanket with adorable eye holes and he starts to wander through the world he used to live in. Initially, he watches his wife M (Rooney Mara) cope with her grief but then things start to get a little non-linear as he begins experiencing time non-linearly.
The visual aesthetic Lowery employs here is second to none. The film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, making every image feel as though it popped out of a Polaroid camera. The cinematography evokes the old black and white photos most commonly paired with horror folk tales. Lowery relies almost exclusively on this imagery with very little dialogue to string it all together. In fact, there’s only one sequence in which characters talk to each other for more than a minute or two.
All of these choices are wonderful in theory and make for a movie that’s lovely to look at. However, A Ghost Story never quite measures up on an emotional level, even though it is so clearly trying to. The relationship between Affleck and Mara is given so little time to marinate in the first act that we’re not as devastated as intended by their separation. Even though the idea of Affleck watching his wife slowly fade away in front of him is a tragic idea, it’s only dealt with on a surface level. We know what is happening but we’re never given a reason why it is happening to these particular people. It can be argued that by the sheer ubiquity of death, the separation given is appropriate. The film has a nihilistic view of how fleeting our existence is. That’s all well and good, but it comes across as though the audience is never even given a chance to empathize with these people.
Since the characters are so minimalistic, Affleck and Mara aren’t given a chance to draw us in. They’re both rather subdued performers to begin with and here they feel lethargic. That makes sense after Affleck passes away but before that there should be some sense of chemistry between them. Even a single small moment of levity would’ve helped. Instead, Rooney Mara continues her post-Lion streak of being in cinematic relationships that are semi-defined by her being kissed and caressed in bed.
While Lowery does keep things brief at ninety minutes, the film would’ve highly benefited by making this a thirty-minute short. It’s as if Lowery fell so in love with this idea that he was desperate to add more onto it. While the material in the back half of the film is stranger, it’s as if it’s spinning the wheels of the same theme evoked earlier. If he had done in a shorter format, Lowery wouldn’t have had to force any dialogue in at all. The audience wouldn’t be expecting something as story driven and the atmosphere could’ve really flourished.
Lowery clearly has a great deal of passion for this material and he throws everything he has into each frame. There’s certainly a great deal of technical aspects to appreciate here. However, there’s a bit of an “emperor has no clothes” vibe to A Ghost Story, especially during a time where festival goggles can make some latch onto a buzz-riddled film like this. It seems to think it’s a little more profound than it ends up being, even if it never ventures into full-on pretension. It ultimately leaves us feeling as cold as a corpse and for some, that just might be the point.