Nadine Zylberberg on David Lowery
In David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, a phantom fashioned out of linens experiences eternity. It’s a simple, fantastical premise, but one that sums up Lowery’s disposition as a filmmaker. He wraps grand metaphysical ideas in deeply human stories, letting viewers feel the imaginary. With his last two features, Lowery takes us into fantasy worlds yet supplies real questions to chew on. How does grief feel from the perspective of the dead? What can a dragon teach a young boy about living among humans? These scenarios are at once whimsical and complex, the imprints of an emerging filmmaker who leaves his own questions on the screen. Lowery’s use of sound and space allow viewers to travel between wildly different premises under the wing of a filmmaker with a defined vision.
A Ghost Story opens simply: an unnamed married couple decides whether to keep their Texas ranch home or move. The husband, played by Casey Affleck and identified as C in the credits, wants to stay for reasons his wife, M (Rooney Mara), doesn’t understand. “Honey, we’ve got history,” he says. Do they ever.
Twelve minutes into the film, C dies in a car accident. At the morgue, in a languid single shot and a feat of costume design, a simple death shroud turns into the eternal cloth of a ghost, complete with two holes for eyes. The score up until this point is haunting, but not quite scary. C is a melancholy Casper, gliding through hospital hallways without hurry but with purpose. He’s headed back to the Texas house, back home.
In A Ghost Story, as in Lowery’s previous features, home is more than a place. It’s a state of mind, a song, an idea that, simply by naming it, can set off an entire story. Pete’s Dragon, the remake that Lowery directed for Disney before diving back into his indie roots, thrusts its protagonist out of his home immediately. Pete is a young boy reading a picture book in the back seat of his parents’ car before his life changes completely. After a crash that leaves his parents dead, Pete wanders into the forest, where he makes a home with a giant puppy-like dragon, Elliott. He lives out his own picture book over the course of six adventurous years in the wild. One day, when a park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) appears in the forest, Pete grows cautious—then curious, then hooked. He wants a family and he wants a home, and that starts with Grace. Through Lowery’s keen eye—and ear—we experience the ups and downs, the anger and sadness, of this complicated quest alongside Pete.
A Ghost Story, a self-funded project shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is as personal as a movie gets—down to the way Lowery wants viewers to see it. And unlike the more uplifting Disney template, it explains, bleakly but beautifully, what happens to a home when we are gone for good. Found mostly standing in corners of rooms and looking out windows, the ghost is an observer. Observing, much like Pete, a life that isn’t his—or isn’t his anymore. The film bends time, transporting the ghost, and audience, into the future and the past, giving us a complete picture of this house and the land beneath it. If A Ghost Story offers any single message, it is that everything is ephemeral. Learning that fact first-hand might be the scariest part.
Near the start of the film, a long, lingering shot captures M lugging a trunk full of books to the curb. She’s downsizing as she packs for the eventual move, sorting through possessions and sizing up a piano that came with the house. “It’s always been here,” the realtor tells the couple on their first visit, depicted in a flashback. Upon entering the place, that’s where C gravitates to first, making enough sound on the piano to drown out the realtor’s voice. Her tour of the house, and description of its stuff, doesn't matter as much as this piano, whose keys could seemingly echo within these walls forever. The irony of it all is that everything—even a wooden piano that seems too heavy to lift—is subject to the caprices of time. What remains are the memories, which, to Lowery, are often translated through sound.
In the world of A Ghost Story, noises linger. As a musician, C retreats into his work during at times when M broaches the subject of moving. It’s a distraction and a comfort. And, once he is gone, his music becomes a point of connection for a grieving M. After a flashback to C first showing M a new song, we find M lying on the floor, listening to it alone. She reaches her arm overhead, nearly grazing the hem of the ghost’s sheet. It recalls the intimate touch that Mara and Affleck share as lovers in Lowery’s third feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. In that film, as the law-breaking couple Ruth and Bob are carried away in handcuffs, they lean towards each other, a silent protest against the forces that tear them apart. Ruth buries her head into the crook of her lover’s neck. It is a tender moment of loss, an acknowledgment that the life they once led together is gone. It’s worth noting that these outlaws are cornered and arrested in an empty house, a shell of the home they could have built.
A Ghost Story takes four such walls and lingers there. With sparse dialogue and plot, composer Daniel Hart is left to add a soundtrack to the story of a place. What results is a score as ethereal and haunting as the film itself. Hart also scored Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Ultimately, his music brings these characters home, if not in reality, then in spirit. For Pete’s Dragon, that meant incorporating a mandolin, solo violin, and banjo, creating an intimate alternative to a more predictable sweeping Disney score.
In A Ghost Story, Lowery’s work with sound, too, plays a crucial role in giving this certain home depth. The audience becomes privy to this early on. Mysterious scratching sounds and a shocking slam on the piano keys are the first signs that an unassuming house in the suburbs has more going on. In moments of rage or helplessness, the ghost knocks down dishes or makes lights flicker. Still, some of the best moments in Lowery’s films are silent ones. Like the four minutes M spends sitting on the kitchen floor, devouring a pie in two lengthy unbroken shots. Grief tends to reveal itself in the most mundane moments, the ones that leave characters alone with their thoughts, and the audience with theirs. Lowery’s approach to storytelling lets us fill the blanks. By contrasting rich soundscapes with moments of heavy silence, he invites us to experience these worlds from the inside. He shows us how it feels to live in a forest and how it looks to everyone else. Sounds reveal the spirit in his films; in silence, we dwell in its absence.
Lowery’s films often deal with loss: of a lover, of guardians, or of a life one used to lead. By placing car crashes at the start of A Ghost Story and Pete’s Dragon, Lowery forces the audience to grapple with death, and life after death, from the beginning. As with music and sound, nothing lasts forever. Pete’s Dragon is a film marketed to children. It ends on a hopeful note, but loss is still its heartbeat.
As a whole, Lowery’s work abounds with compassion. Through the use of sound and by emphasizing space, he gives us a sense of people at a specific moment in time. Pete’s Dragon has a vintage feel without drowning in nostalgia like, say, the popular series Stranger Things. The era is not so important as the fact that this once happened, in a place we sort of know. A Ghost Story’s approach is similar, taking us to a time we recognize, but can’t quite place. The aspect ratio recalls the framing of old home videos, and this is telling. We are invited to look at something past, to see how it was, to imagine how it felt—before it disappears into memory, echoing forever.