KVIFF 2017 Review: ‘A Ghost Story’ is Deeply, and Unexpectedly, Haunting

Director David Lowery drew comparisons to Terrence Malick, and especially Days of Heaven, with his debut 2013 feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a sparse drama set in the fields of rural Texas.

He channels Malick once again in his latest feature, A Ghost Story, which recalls the more spiritual, meaning-of-life type ruminations in the director’s 2010 film The Tree of Life – as well as that film’s striking visual palette.

Introducing the film at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival alongside star Casey Affleck and others from behind the camera, Lowery urged viewers to “cast aside all preconceptions” they might have of his movie.

I only knew the film starred Affleck as a bedsheet-wearing ghost a la a 1930s cartoon, but Lowery was right: this film defies any notions a viewer could reasonably have, and just generally defies description.

In sparse early scenes, Affleck and Rooney Mara star as a couple living in a modest suburban home in the southern US. We infer only the faintest hints about their relationship, which might be on the rocks, but in any event, he’s soon dead.

But not out of the picture: no, Affleck crawls out of his bed at the morgue under a bedsheet, cuts a pair of eyeholes in it, and walks back home. He’s a ghost now, in the spirit world, and while he can observe the living he cannot interact. Not much, in any event.

Soon Mara’s character is out of the film, too, and A Ghost Story becomes a ghost movie as told from the point of view of the ghost. Think back to Poltergeist, or The Haunting, or Paranormal Activity, etc., and sympathize, or even shed a tear: ghosts are (or were) people, too.

As unlikely as this sounds, A Ghost Story becomes a hauntingly beautiful rumination on the nature and meaning of life and the significance of a human being, and a powerful and unique exploration of what it all adds up to.

Affleck’s ghost lives so long he comes back to the beginning, only to witness the events of his own life all over again. We may not yet have reached the afterlife, but it’s thematic device that we can all relate to.

Affleck isn’t always under the bedsheet; he revealed to the Karlovy Vary audience in a Q&A following the film that stand-in occasionally filled in for him. Still, the character is a surprisingly strong one: for most of the movie we’re watching a bedsheet with black eyes simply bear witness to the events that pass him by, and yet somehow it all works, and we even identify with this most unusual central character.

Beautifully shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio by Andrew Droz Palermo, A Ghost Story looks like a work of art with every shot. The lethargic pacing of the film may divide audiences, but I think most will find a lot to like here.

And do cast away preconceptions, but imagine 1990’s Ghost as remade by Terrence Malick and you’re on the right track.

A Ghost Story will open in the US later this week, but it’s still in search of a release date in the Czech Republic.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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