Why would an A-list director keep a star-studded film secret until it was finished and ready to debut at the Sundance Film Festival? And how does one maintain that level of secrecy in a world full of talent agents, publicists and obsessive fans with access to the internet?
Dallas-based filmmaker David Lowery graduated from making one of the most accomplished recent independent films (
Ain't Them Bodies Saints) to directing a 3-D adventure for Disney (last year's Pete's Dragon), when he had a strange idea for a film that he knew might not work at all.
Lowery wanted to put Casey Affleck (who won an Academy Award for Manchester by the Sea) in a white sheet and shoot a quiet, impressionistic, almost dialogue-free story of a ghost who yearns to break free of its spiritual limbo. All Lowery had to do was keep the project small and inexpensive enough to avoid nosy investors, and he had to convince not only Affleck but actress Rooney Mara (Oscar-nominated for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to fly to Texas last summer and start work without telling their agents or anyone else. If the idea didn't work, he would have an experimental short film or video art installation for his trouble.
The result of those efforts is A Ghost Story, a brooding, 92-minute rumination on love, loss, time, memory, impermanence and the personal connections that sustain people. It's about how much of life is merely existence, utterly mundane but also rife with meaning if one chooses to see it.
Built primarily from long, still, often single-shot scenes designed to induce the audience into a near-meditative state, A Ghost Story is the antithesis of the Hollywood summer action movie. It's not hard to imagine casual viewers — perhaps attracted by the film's generic horror-movie title — emerging from a theater baffled by the experience.
Those willing to keep an open mind and stick with it — getting past the inherently childish image of a man-in-a-sheet as a ghost — may be rewarded by the singular experience of a defiant and ultimately subversive film. The pace and perspective (a ghost's-eye-view of the world) generate their own logic and make sense over time. It's a strong-willed art film with an unspeakably sad view of human existence, but one that offers a chance at catharsis.
The story initially focuses on heartbreaking loss before opening up to larger themes as our ghost protagonist becomes unstuck in time. Shot in the squarish format of early cinema (complete with rounded edges), A Ghost Story focuses attention on the physical presence of its actors. Mara delivers an unforgettably emotional performance with the benefit of little dialogue. Only longtime Lowery collaborator Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) speaks directly on matters of human nature in a single scene as a grad student spouting off at a party.
With A Ghost Story, Lowery and his collaborators fulfill an unlikely vision of the afterlife in hopes of illuminating what it means to be alive. Think of it as an unexpected antidote to the endless stream of superhero movies screening at local multiplexes. Lowery's stark and beautiful images haunted me for weeks after seeing the film. What more can a ghost story do?