I'm a major fan of ghost stories. Besides sending me into shivers, they're one of the most underrated literary and cinematic forms. At their best, they poetically touch on such themes as mortality, the power of the past over the present, and fundamental human loneliness and vulnerability.
While not great, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (seen on a Friday afternoon at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland) is a genuinely poetic film that quietly captures some of the crucial themes drifting through the best the genre has to offer.
The movie is both modest and ambitious. Like all the best supernatural tales, the plot as simple as a bed sheet. A young man, played with great patience by Casey Affleck, dies and returns to haunt his wife, played with equal stoic grief by Rooney Mara. The twist is he’s draped in the classic white sheet—with the eye holes, done just right—I first recall seeing in an Abbott and Costello movie Hold That Ghost. It’s a trope found in the work of the master M.R. James before becoming the go-to costume for millions of little kids at Halloween.
A Ghost Story could well have become Ed Wood on a big budget. But it's not. Nor is it some sniggering post-modern camp artifact or an Airplane-style parody (which I might have tolerated). The costume really expresses the loneliness and alienation whispering under most ghost stories. How can you reach out to anyone when your soul is trapped under a bed sheet? To be a ghost is to be alone and the sheet makes the character’s loneliness as palpable as a cold breath.
Lowery films his odd little tale brilliantly in long quiet takes, shot in traditional 1:33 ratio (with rounded edges, like in old Polaroid photos!), a great format for films where the intimacy imposed by the tight frame compresses the feelings so you get a sense of hearts and minds about to burst. I wish more filmmakers—especially of smaller films—considered this format. And it’s all handled with great delicacy and just enough wit to leaven the great sadness underneath.
Unfortunately, the movie gets a little abstract toward the end—there’s a side trip into beery kitchen table metaphysics I might have done without and a time travel twist that made me scowl and broke some of the tension. But it's wrapped up with an eerie sense that can be truly called “ghostly.”
Through it all Casey Affleck maintains exquisite patience having to act from under a bed sheet. (Most actors would eventually lose it.) Filming must have taken enormous patience for all concerned. Cast and crew—including composer David Hart whose score moans and seethes throughout—deserve credit for this worthwhile haunting. And given the generic title, it’s clear the ghost story matters as much as it ever did. They will be with us so long as we continue to live, and die.
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.