You might call it a gimmick, if you go into the theater in an unforgiving mood. Or you might call it a stroke of inspiration.
David Lowery, the writer-director of A Ghost Story, has chosen to represent his title character by a guy covered in a white sheet, Halloween style. Two elliptical holes, with nothing but emptiness behind them, occupy the place where the eyes should be. Sometimes the sheet slips a little, so the dark holes look like they’re drooping, and sometimes the guy beneath the drapery slowly turns his head to stare at something, which makes the fabric gather prettily in helical folds. That’s about all the expression you get from this movie’s central presence, who mostly stands around in silence.
Lowery inserts this masquerade, as bland as it is childish, into the most mundane of settings—a one-story house, designed with no social ambitions and plopped down in the grass and weeds of a present-day Texas city—so the effect never comes close to spookiness. Nor is it meant to: Lowery prefers for A Ghost Story to be wry, wistful, affecting, and odd with the kind of strangeness that doesn’t wear off. He succeeds so well that the wonder he elicits—about love, grief, memory, and time—eventually needs to make room for the mystery of how he’s pulled off the trick.
What makes you empathize with a ridiculous point-of-view character who does very little and can’t show emotion? Granted, the ghost becomes demonstrative on one occasion, when he smashes crockery, and you can guess something about his inner life when the electric lamps near him suddenly flicker and buzz. But even at these moments, you remain at a considerable remove from the character, compared with the immediacy you’d get if you saw an actor’s face and body and heard his voice. Besides, the anger that you intuit in these scattered episodes is exceptional. The emotions that usually seem to emanate from this watchful soul—longing, curiosity, a melancholy stubbornness—are in a much subtler range, and yet you read them from a near blank.
I suppose you feel so much for him because you’re a ghost, too. Sitting passively before the screen in the theater’s darkness, you watch the comings and goings of people who can’t see you, can’t be touched by you, can’t hear your voice. You’re as good as dead to them, and so you witness A Ghost Story as if through the sheet-man’s empty holes.
What you see is a constrained, fragmentary world, one in which you’re continually reminded that much is hidden in the margins or has gone missing entirely. Lowery and his cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, present everything within an old-fashioned squarish frame, which sits in the middle of a larger, more conventionally horizontal field of black. I sometimes became so absorbed that I forgot I was looking at only a fraction of the screen; but with the next cut, I would always pop out again and notice the void hovering around the characters.
Quite a few of them show up over time, but the main ones, present at the beginning, are a nameless young woman and man (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck), very much in love, who are preparing to move to a new house. That’s what you piece together, anyway, from your disjointed glimpses of their lives. Within a few quick scenes, you learn that she never stayed in one place for very long as a child, and suffered from this rootlessness; that he’s a composer of pop songs of the droning-synth variety, which he sings in a high, keening voice; and that both are disturbed by unexplained bangs in the middle of the night. There’s more to discover, of course, though nothing of the plot-driving variety. But before you learn any of it, the man suddenly dies of an unspecified misadventure, only to return from the morgue draped in his sheet.
So the vestigial story ends, and the movie begins. One after another, the scenes in their little frames fill up with time, as observed in long, steady takes by a character who is no longer in any hurry. As is appropriate for a movie experienced by a dead musician, the scenes also fill with sound—principally the Wagnerian electronica composed by Daniel Hart, who likes to write repetitive, drawn-out, ascending scales that never quite reach their promised high point, given the shifting of the harmony beneath each note. Above all, the scenes fill to bursting with emotion—as tenuous and uncertain as the soundtrack music, as indefinable and unchallengeably present as the prismatic light that sometimes plays around the edges of the frame.
So long as Rooney Mara remains in the house, she’s the object of the ghost’s unwavering attention and the film’s primary source of legible feelings. At once birdlike and fierce, she gives a locus to the movie’s free-floating grief, most memorably when she sits on the floor and methodically forks an entire pie down her throat. (In doing so, she also reveals one of Lowery’s unusual influences: The pie-eating is a near copy of a scene in Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle.) Then, because nothing in A Ghost Story is permanent, except perhaps for time and love, she moves out. The ghost stays—according to Lowery, that’s what spirits do—while strangers start to pass through the house, trailing their momentary preoccupations and desires across these few thousand square feet of eternity.
My own preoccupations almost kept me from seeing A Ghost Story. I wasn’t a fan of Lowery’s breakout feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), which also starred Mara and Affleck and seemed to me to waste them both in the service of a fussy genre revisionism. When I saw the teaser art for A Ghost Story, with its Halloween figure pictured in mimicry of 19th-century spirit photographs, I thought I’d be in for more of the same. Then too, I didn’t expect that Lowery—or anyone—would come close to the touching inventiveness of my favorite film from the beyond, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life.
As far as I’m concerned, Kore-eda remains the champ, with his modest community of supernatural bureaucrats, by turns social workers and low-budget filmmakers, helping each of the dead to find just one abiding moment of meaning in the life they’ve left. Lowery, being an American, imagines something much lonelier: He consigns his ghost to an alienated individualism on the Texas plain, and to a self-imposed task—a search—that might yield meaning eventually but has the look, for God knows how long, of mindless scratching.
Like the movie itself, this scratching is obsessive and materialistic, and the characters who pass through while it’s in progress suggest that it’s futile as well. (In case you miss the point, Lowery supplies a party scene where a beery windbag, played by Will Oldham, talks the life out of everything from here to the heat death of the universe.) And yet there’s a wonderful amplitude of humor and melancholy in A Ghost Story, of faithfulness and determination, which Lowery achieves through the most traditional methods of filmmaking, coupled with a sensitivity to the basic conditions of watching.
I note that Lowery could have gotten away with casting an extra as the ghost, but Casey Affleck took the part himself, spending perhaps three-quarters of his screen time as an incognito mime. The movie hides a lot more actor than was needed under that sheet—and, just so, a lot more thought and feeling than you could ever have hoped to encounter are working away under the surface of this film.
At the opposite end of the scale from A Ghost Story in technical sophistication is every other special effect in this summer’s movies.
Sometimes these fabrications are gorgeous to behold, even if the story they’re employed in doesn’t amount to much. I’m thinking of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, no doubt the classiest comic-book adaptation we’ll see for a while, in which a 3-D stream of bright-colored sci-fi fantasies splashes from the screen for more than two hours. Unfortunately, this CGI extravaganza is far more memorable than the film’s semi-juvenile stars, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, who deliver their dialogue with a careless impatience that makes you think they’d rather text.
In another case, as the film settles into cliché, even the blockbuster’s marvels fade to lackluster. Twenty minutes into War for the Planet of the Apes, you realize that director Matt Reeves and his team of writers haven’t thought of any reason for the movie to exist. They’re just patching together whatever’s at hand—a theme or two from old Stanley Kramer message pictures, a recollection of Apocalypse Now—on the principle of “Well, because.” By the time the picture they’re stitching together emerges in its full senselessness, you’ve long since lost your surprise and delight in Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow motion-capture apes. Two movies past the wit and virtuosity of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the formerly amazing creatures have become no more involving than any other characters who slog toward a trilogy’s last paycheck.
But I’m happy to say that one of the summer’s CGI inventions remains astonishing, and lovable, from first to last: the giant pet pig that is the title character of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja.
Midway in size between a hippopotamus and an elephant, with a wide, flat tail, a single udder, and a distinctly humanoid iris around the pupils of her intelligent eyes, Okja is first seen in a pastoral idyll in the mountains of South Korea, living with her 14-year-old best friend Mija (An Seo Hyun). The cinematography is by Darius Khondji, which means the forest is lush green, the streams and waterfalls are crystalline, and the fruits that Okja craves—which she gathers by rolling her bulk downhill into a tree—almost glow with a not-quite-ripe red. Bong and his colleagues have integrated the animation into this setting with a seamlessness to match Okja’s relationship with Mija. The two even nap together, with Mija lying on Okja’s broad back; and when Okja turns over, Mija rolls in unison, leaving the actress miraculously settled on the belly of the CGI pig.
This harmony, of course, is too good to last. We know, because Bong has preceded these leisurely scenes of nature with a prologue set in New York, where a prowling, preening, shouting, arm-waving Tilda Swinton, in full-bonkers exuberance as the CEO of the Mirando Corporation, has strutted through a press conference announcing the birth of miracle pigs that will feed the entire world. Video images flash on all sides, so fast that none of the assembled reporters can wonder what they’re really about. A corporate executive (Giancarlo Esposito) watches from a catwalk, silently mouthing with Swinton the script of her ostensibly candid remarks about these super-pigs—entirely non-GMO!—and the plan to raise the first of them on an ethnically diverse set of traditional family farms around the world.
No wonder the mountains of Korea seem so peaceful after all that. No wonder that Mija is going to be heartbroken—and rebellious—when she realizes that everything she’s been told is a lie. The Mirando Corporation owns her beloved companion Okja and has come to take her back to the United States: first for another publicity stunt presided over by Swinton, and then for the fate of all pigs.
As even this brief summary should make plain, the director and his co-writer, Jon Ronson, have a lot on their minds, including the satirical themes that Bong played with previously in The Host and Snowpiercer. He’s fascinated by the chaos that corporations and governments set loose, even while seeking to keep order through money, mendacity, and ecological mayhem. As a Korean, Bong also thinks it’s particularly funny—and awful—that so much of this trouble lands on people from his part of the world, when the Euro-Americans profess to generate it out of pure benevolence; and as someone born into the post-1968 world, he looks on activists (such as the hilarious Animal Liberation Front cadre in Okja) with sympathy, nostalgia, and very little confidence.
That’s Bong as a social thinker. As a filmmaker, he’s also got a lot of ideas, many of which have to do with setting loose chaos of his own. He’s better at eruptions of wild action than almost anyone today; the only complaint you can make against these set pieces (such as the rampage in Okja through an underground shopping mall) is that when they’re over, it takes a while for the movie to get back into gear. I’m not sure, though, that Bong cares. His chronic preoccupation with matters irrelevant to plot development and narrative rhythm—for example, Swinton’s teeth, in which he takes an interest more proper to an oral surgeon—betrays the mind-set of an artist who doesn’t let commercial imperatives get too much in the way of his compulsions.
Here’s another of Bong’s enduring preoccupations: the courage of young women, whether they struggle to survive abduction by a hungry mutant (The Host) or set off valiantly to bring a giant pig back to the mountains. Okja is a very busy film, full of chases, intrigues, performances pitched at the level of hysteria, and televisual hubbub. At the center of it, though, stands Mija. While everyone around her seems completely crazy, she remains not calm, exactly, but unafraid, not still but unswerving in purpose—which makes her even more astonishing than her CGI friend.