Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Film Review: The haunting, stunning A Ghost Story is one of the year's very best

At least once a year, a film comes along that I have no idea where to even begin discussing. David Lowery's A Ghost Story is that film of 2017. This is a story so profound, and a concept so heavy but told so simply, that putting my feelings for it into words almost feels redundant. A Ghost Story rarely uses words. Bar one elongated dialogue piece in the middle act, the film almost entirely renounces the spoken word in favour of haunting atmospheric work. It already has the hallmarks of a film that will take endless viewings in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of what it's doing.

A Ghost Story begins with a couple, known to us only as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), living in a suburban house trying to make their lives work. C is soon killed in a car accident outside their home. M visits his body at the morgue, and, after she leaves, C reawakens as a sheeted ghost with two black holes in place of eyes and seemingly no other characteristics. He wanders the hospital and soon becomes aware that no one can see him, so he returns to his home and is forced to endure a heartbreaking loneliness as he watches M cope with her grief having lost him.

And I won't say any more than that. And boy is that going to make this review tough to write. A Ghost Story is bold and experimental in its first act - there's a five minute take of M eating an entire pie on her own - but the journey it follows is, to me, at this stage, beyond comprehension. That isn't to say I didn't understand the film, I did. I followed its A's to its B's, I reached its conclusion and when the lights came back on in the cinema I felt a sense of closure by the story I'd just watched. But the ideas that A Ghost Story presents, especially in its final act, are so monumental, so overwhelmingly powerful that I don't feel as if I've even broken the surface of what it achieves.

I'm starting to not make any sense. I don't want to even hint at some of the imagery and material A Ghost Story presents in its third act - the weight behind a lot of it is best seen when entirely unprepared for it - so instead let's break it down into more conventional movie territory. The film is gorgeously shot in the 1:33:1 aspect ratio, and by gorgeous I mean downright haunting. C's ghost looms in the background of the frame while M is overcome with bereavement, and the square aspect ratio seems to entrap them within the image. A Ghost Story soon begins to look at the idea of an eternity, and of legacy - the unusual aspect ratio both enhances the entrapment and emphasises the endlessness.

Due to its lack of dialogue, Lowery's film needs to find a new source of audio - and it settles on a musical score that ranges from quiet and haunting to loud and almost overbearing. The score is a beautiful accompaniment to the film, effortlessly matching its tone without blending in so much as to become unnoticeable. You're permanently aware of the film's music when it plays - much like C's ghost during a pivotal moment in the story, it wants to make its presence known, and felt. A Ghost Story makes stunning use of silence, too. There are elongated stretches of nothingness during C's time at the house, and by removing both soundtrack and dialogue we feel his isolation. It sounds like a cheap trick, but Lowery makes brilliant use of it.

Besides his two pitch black eyes, C's ghost is faceless. He's a character who has already suffered death, and a character that lacks the focal element we need to feel empathy for him. It's a jarring blend of abnormalities and, quite frankly, I can't believe I'm saying this, but C's ghost might just be the year's best film character. At one point he wordlessly converses with another ghost occupying the household next to his, and while the devastating reveal made by the other ghost is what drives the scene, it's how C's ghost might interpret and respond to it that makes the moment so harrowing. By the end of A Ghost Story, I felt exhausted. Not because the film is an emotional roller coaster - it certainly isn't that - but because of how overwhelmingly sad it is. I don't care if I'm being reactionary: A Ghost Story, with all the ideas it presents, might just be the saddest film I've ever seen.

It's really tough to sell this without talking of the film's final act. A film that was once so small and intimate suddenly feels enormous, as if a whole new dimension has opened up before it and expanded its scope to a galaxy of new ideas. A Ghost Story's starry imagery probably isn't a coincidence, there's something cosmic at the root of this film. It's a tale that, in our world, ends about fifteen minutes into the narrative, yet it's the void between worlds in which we spend most of our time. With its intimacy, with its expanse, and with its heart and with its tears, it's a simply unforgettable place to be.

In A Sentence

Astonishingly unique and devastatingly sad, A Ghost Story tackles its deeply human themes in poignant, powerful, and ambitiously profound ways.

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