David Lowery's A Ghost Story
Sundance 2017. With Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.
"The premise is a simple one," begins Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. "A man only credited as C (Casey Affleck) dies after a head-on car accident in front of his house, leaving behind his wife, M (Rooney Mara). After examining his corpse at the hospital, she leaves the room, and, covered by the white cloth over his body, his ghost rises up and returns home to observe the grieving widow he left behind. If one thought only a spooky, small-scale haunted house tale is to follow, David Lowery’s latest is proof that a premise is merely a foundation. Beginning with the beauty, patience, and humor of an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie before segueing into the existential musings reminiscent of Richard Linklater dialogue, and then infinitely expanding its scope to become a stunning meditation on the passage of time, A Ghost Story is one of the most original, narratively audacious films I’ve ever seen."
"There's no more childlike representation of a spectral presence than a figure draped in a white bed-sheet with cutout holes for eyes," writes David Rooney for the Hollywood Reporter. What's "remarkable is the unsettling power that unsophisticated image builds as the film develops into a sorrowful contemplation of lingering connections."
"It’s hard to explain exactly what A Ghost Story is," writes Noel Murray at the Playlist. "It’s definitely not a comedy, although that first manifestation of The Ghost is very funny, and there a few other laugh-out-loud moments…. The best way to describe at least the first half-hour of A Ghost Story is to say that it’s like a highly arty version of the Hollywood blockbuster Ghost, as the main character returns to haunt his true love. But the movie doesn’t stay in that vein of meditating on grief and loss. About a third of the way through, it takes a dramatic turn. And then, toward the end, it turns yet again."
"Initially," writes Ioncinema's Nicholas Bell, "this arguably pretentious visual poem promises to be merely a stringent, experimental exercise from Lowery, more along the lines of his 2013 breakout Ain’t Them Bodies Saints than his family friendly studio rehash of Pete’s Dragon (2016), but quickly morphs into a striking yet disconsolate piece of visual poetry on the passage of time, the potential meaningless of existence, and an inescapable cycle of destruction and rebirth."
"Remarkably," writes Screen's Tim Grierson, "Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo manage to locate what is both haunting and woeful about Affleck’s intentionally cut-rate ghost costume. Consequently, the dead, voiceless husband is an uncommonly sweet, sad spectre, his meagre appearance playing into Lowery’s overall strategy of stripping away the spectacle and fantasy from his ghost story—which allows us to focus on the pain of loss which is at the heart of this tale."
IndieWire's Eric Kohn notes that Affleck and Mara are "only a small part of the ensemble that comes and goes as events speed up and lurch in a series of unpredictable directions. Among the standouts is Lowery regular Will Oldham… Just as his bizarre tale in [Lowery's] Pioneer  transformed a simple concept into something unexpectedly profound, Oldham’s energetic monologue in A Ghost Story takes this storybook fantasy into enlightening intellectual terrain, as he grapples with Beethoven, crises of faith, the end of the world, and the healing power of art. The rambling speech, delivered at a house party to baffled guests, might suffer from being on-the-nose, but it’s so vivid it has the same effect as the white sheet lurking nearby. It levitated above the inherent absurdity of the situation with poetic conviction."
"After Mara’s departure from the house, Lowery—and his ghost—stick to the location, though the timeline begins to unravel, slipping forward and back through the decades," writes Variety's Peter Debruge. "The ghost bears witness to the arrival of a pioneer-era stagecoach family and the construction of a futuristic skyscraper, presumably all on the same spot (though the movie is a bit vague on that count). It’s during this stretch that Lowery reveals the thing that went bump in the night at the outset of the film, while C and M were first lying entwined in bed—not so much a ghost from the house’s past as a phantom of their own unrequited future."
"Not all is explained in A Ghost Story," notes Jordan Hoffman, writing for the Guardian, "but enough is there for vibrant discussion to break out the minute the credits rolled. I’ve got my theories about it all, and what’s best is that other folks have differing, reasonable versions. What’s undeniable, though, is the creeping profundity that emerges from what could easily have been a dopey student short film idea."
For Steve Pond at TheWrap, A Ghost Story is "a strange, sad, fragile little thing that should make us snicker, but instead it fills the screen with grace and beauty." And for Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com: "It’s daring, strange, and unforgettable."
Updates, 1/26: For Bilge Ebiri, dispatching to the Voice, the film's "what-the-fuckery feels more calculated than organic. Lowery’s picture has won the adoration of many critics here, and while it’s always nice to see offbeat work get embraced, I found A Ghost Story mostly alienating, at times even annoying. Lowery’s ability to frame a shot might be peerless, but his story, as weird as it is, still turns on passion and regret, none of which come through in any meaningful way."
For Filmmaker columnist Dan Schoenbrun, though, it's "a rare privilege to see a contemporary American film as ambitious, emotionally honest, and just-plain-breathtaking." A Ghost Story is "a major work, and thanks to distributor A24, it’ll have a major release later this year."
"Some have called A Ghost Story 'small,'" notes A.A. Dowd at the AV Club, "and that’s true in the sense that it’s a fairly short film set predominately in a single setting with a tiny cast. But the scope of the story expands slowly, as the filmmaker pulls and tugs at the timeline to place his characters against an impossibly huge cosmic canvas. When Lowery let his Terrence Malick fandom show in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the results felt like pure affectation: all whispery borrowed style, no substance. With A Ghost Story, he hasn’t entirely emerged from that fellow Texan’s long shadow, but he has made something that—in its compact way—reaches for the kind of big questions Malick has made a career lyrically raising."
And "this film disturbed me way more than most conventional horror movies," writes Matt Singer at ScreenCrush, "because Lowery understands that the really frightening part of any haunted house tale isn’t the ghost or the demon or the everyday objects moving of their own accord. It’s the reminder that death is coming for us all, whether we’re ready for it or not."
"The most singular, ambitious and poignant work I’ve seen so far," wrote Josh Cabrita for the Notebook on Tuesday, "A Ghost Story is more than the next whatever; it is its own beautiful, serene, and transcendent thing."
Updates, 1/27: There'll be more from where this one comes from, reports Jordon Raup at the Film Stage: "'We decided on this one that we all need to do a movie together in Texas every three or four years. So hopefully this is the second of many,' Lowery said in the film’s press notes from Sundance." And of Affleck and Mara, Lowery writes, "I love both of them individually, but I particularly love seeing the two of them together."
"Lowery’s handsomely shot, affectingly scored film may take what feels like an eternity getting there, but by the end it transforms into a powerful, sobering work of contemplation and grief," writes Ed Gibbs for Little White Lies.
Update, 1/28: "The longer we watch the ghost silently watching events unfolding, unable to react, the more history itself becomes a sadly sweet protagonist, specifically the kind of history concerning seemingly unimportant things," writes Vanessa McDonnell for Screen Slate. "It’s an absorbing meditation on watching and on time itself, with a terrific sense of humor."
Updates, 4/16: Lowery "proceeds to murder the inner cynic in you and turn your laughter into tears as the whole thing becomes a moving, meditative look at the passage of time, memory, geography and our collective existential funk," writes Rolling Stone's David Fear. "Pretentious? Possibly. Profound? Most definitely."
"In its own peculiarly elliptical, affecting way, A Ghost Story zeroes in on primal feelings about loneliness and loss—before spanning time and space into something so much stranger and even more beautiful," adds Sean Burns.
For the full 2017 Sundance on Fandor experience, go here.