Here’s the thing about slow cinema: the experience of time is in the eyes of the beholder. One viewer’s long slog may be another’s deliberate meditation. A film’s pacing is experienced subjectively, and while often not uniform, can be described fairly succinctly, with the brevity of a simpler description: “the film was slow.”
“A Ghost Story” is slow, until it isn’t. The latest feature film from up-and-coming director David Lowery, who wowed audiences with the surprisingly heartfelt Disney remake “Pete’s Dragon” last year, is a haunting meditation on time and the afterlife. At the film’s center are a married couple, C (Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”) and M (Rooney Mara, “Lion”), who live in a small suburban home. C dies in a car crash and becomes a ghost, clothed in a white bed sheet with cartoonish oval black eyes cut out. It’s practically absurd, an extended sight gag, but the gravity of the story around it swallows any levity. C, stuck in his ghostly state, watches M live, carry on with new romance and sell the house. It transfers owners, and C watches, occasionally struggling to uncover the written message M left in the walls of the house before painting over it.
There’s a current of nihilism that runs underneath the film, guiding its core philosophy. Time for C moves rather quickly, but how fast is fast when you have forever to live? Time for M moves unbearably slowly, but soon enough she too will be buried six feet below ground. Neither are able to achieve or accomplish anything of import, resigned to let gloom permeate their existence until their purposes are fulfilled, they die or perhaps for an eternity. And regardless of what they do in their lives, their deaths and the deaths of everyone they’ve ever known and could ever know will erase their existence in memory.
When Lowery’s film dives into these existential questions, the film quickens and becomes easier to watch. When a guest at a party — played by Will Oldham, otherwise known as the musician Bonnie “Prince” Billy (“Old Joy”) — ruminates on the enormity of time and the meaninglessness of human existence, one can’t help but be fascinated by the man’s ramblings, even if its meaning is one of the most terrifying truths ever uttered on celluloid. Meanwhile, the film’s abundant slow moments, including a scene in which a grieving M eats a pie for minutes (without a cut, scored only by M’s fork against a tin container and her sniffling), feel a bit on the nose, demonstrating that time that feels long, well, feels long.
But for a poetic film that is deeply literary — it starts with a Virginia Woolf quote, after all — its visual style is a splendor. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (“6 Years”) filmed using grainy stock, which adds a faded texture to each frame. The decision to shoot in a 1:33 aspect ratio with rounded corners, so that each frame looks something like an old photograph, further ties the film to the power of memory. Affleck and Mara weave their characters with a complex emotional schema that capitalizes on a strong interior acting style that allows the two to show their characters’ thoughts on their faces and movements.
Perhaps the key to understanding the meaning of Lowery’s film is the indefinite article. The tale of C and M is personal by nature, but its applicability is infinite — this is ultimately just one ghost story. We all experience loss, and we will all have unfinished business after we are gone ourselves. This story, though rather confined in its geographical scope, is universal.