Time is a foundational element of cinema, as the medium captures and manipulates, plays and re-plays, deconstructs and reconstructs, presents and re-presents time. An eternity can be reduced to an instant and an instant extended to an eternity. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story explores time and our fluctuating perception of it, and is also a mournful and moving story. How does our perception of time change when we cannot adjust to a world changed by loss? Grief keeps us locked in the moment of loss, the famous five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – related to the moment of someone being gone, rather than the revised state of the world in which they are gone. Lowery explores these concepts with exquisite focus and restraint, using the specific possibilities of cinema to portray the experiences of grief, time and timelessness with precision, grace and humanity. We see the film’s central characters C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) experience events in their lives that are remarkable in their unremarkableness: a discussion about moving house; investigating sounds in the night; listening to a song composed by C. Following the death of C, and his haunting of their home under a white sheet with eye holes, scenes are played out with varying presentations of time. What could be days, months or years pass in seconds, while in one bravura sequence, M eats an entire pie in almost a single take. This scene is almost unbearably uncomfortable, conveying the non-time that M and the watching ghost experience, completely separate yet unable to disconnect. The long take is the film’s most used and effective device, as it not only prolongs uncomfortable sequences, but also impacts on the viewer’s expectations of cinema. Various shots continue far past the point at which we expect a cut, highlighting our engagement with cinema and with time itself. Much like the ghost, we constantly wait for things to move on, and when they do not we may be discomfited but then again we may embrace the film’s conceit of reassessing our engagement and experience of time. A Ghost Story invites such responses but never provides answers, offering only the most tantalizing questions as an experience that is both frustrating and compelling.
For most of its running time, Matt Reeves’ new entry in the remarkably durable simian franchise is that finest of blockbusters, combining a grand and at times awe-inspiring sweep with a fine eye for detail. An electrifying early sequence tracks soldiers moving through dense undergrowth, while supertext informs the viewer of the previous Rise and Dawn, before the scene erupts into furious and harrowing combat. This macro and micro scale continues throughout the film, as Reeves leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is a war both for the planet and for souls. Key to understanding these inner and outer wars is the phenomenal performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, his journey echoing that of many a war film protagonist. Serkis’ performance is enhanced by the extraordinary visual effects that suggest you could plunge your hands into the thick fur of Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar’s most trusted friend and at some points his conscience. Equally impressive without digital make-up is Woody Harrelson as the terrifying Colonel who commands the military force against the apes, a chilling combination of Apocalypse Now‘s Kilgore and Kurtz who will stop at nothing to achieve his fanatical purpose. The movie echoes Vietnam war films in other ways such as the guerrilla/gorilla tactics of both sides, shifting loyalties and the steady loss of empathy and humanity among humans and apes alike. Indeed, some sequences echo Holocaust dramas, including a seemingly direct nod to Schindler’s List. Some of the echoes are effective but others too on the nose, while the final act is overly drawn out and there is unnecessary comic relief in the character of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). The film is at its finest when it is unrelentingly grim, DOP Michael Seresin presenting the horrors and suffering of war with a cold, stark beauty. While Reeves carefully elides outright gore, there is no doubt that many characters are killed and just as many suffer agonies both physical and mental, including an early moment that is quite heartbreaking. Yet WFTPOTA also offers moments of great tenderness and compassion, its most moving moments when Reeves uses a subjective camera that has characters staring directly at the audience. It may be a cliché to present eyes as the window to the soul, but nonetheless a great deal is communicated through these bright eyes that convey the soulful struggle and hard fought war for this planet.