When it snows, it buries. Sorry to cutely twist an idiom, but in both a figurative and a meteorological sense, that proved true on my fourth day of Sundance 2017. The heavy snowfall we were promised at the beginning of the festival finally arrived, nonstop flurries adding inches to every mountain avenue and further slowing both foot- and vehicle-traffic in the so-called theater loop. For the West Coasters in to make a deal, enjoy a party, or simply bask in the glow of celebrity (a lot of famous faces to spot at the end of the fest’s first weekend), Park City must now look like a frozen wasteland. For a Midwesterner like myself, it just looks like January, albeit with more people wearing skis. Not that a little inclement weather was going to spoil the moment when Sundance, heretofore quiet on the exciting movie front, finally hit its stride. I saw four films on Sunday. Three of them were terrific.
It was tough to predict that one of these triumphs would be the latest project from Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery, whose work I first encountered at my very first Sundance in 2013, when he was in Park City as both the editor of Shane Carruth’s intoxicatingly strange Upstream Color and the writer-director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Now Lowery’s reunited with the stars of that dreamy outlaw saga, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, for something infinitely more singular and unusual: A Ghost Story (Grade: A-), a sneakily ambitious meditation on life after death, the endurance of romantic connection, and the value we place on the spaces we occupy. If that sounds impossibly vague, it’s because there’s no easy way to even describe this movie without detrimentally demystifying it. But I’ll try.
Shot in the boxy Academy ratio, in secret and on a presumably limited budget, A Ghost Story begins like an especially low-key relationship study, looking in on a couple (Affleck and Mara) as they sink into the comfortable embrace of long-term cohabitation, while also bickering about moving out of the house they’ve made a home. Thing is, they might not be alone in that house; noises in the night tease a spectral squatter. And it isn’t long before Lowery is making his big dramatic gambit: a shift to the perspective of a literal apparition, visualized on screen as the classic Halloween costume of a bed-sheet with eyeholes cut into it. Yes, really.
A Ghost Story defies easy classification. One could describe it as a haunted house movie from the perspective of the haunter, but that might falsely lead people to expect horror, when stoking our dread isn’t really on Lowery’s agenda. The cliché childhood image of the ghost itself has a plain comic appeal, which the film doesn’t deny, even as Lowery somehow reinvests it with a spooky melancholy—the supernatural being floating majestically around a hospital and standing silently in doorways, its black circles for eyes somehow conveying a deep loneliness. A Ghost Story is playful, but it’s also deathly still and (dare I say it) ghostly quiet. There will probably be those terminally bored by its stretches of wordless activity, some of it captured in casually protracted long takes. Others, I suspect, will be profoundly moved by how it uses stillness to evoke emotional paralysis.
Some have called A Ghost Story “small,” and that’s true in the sense that it’s a fairly short film set predominately in a single setting with a tiny cast. But the scope of the story expands slowly, as the filmmaker pulls and tugs at the timeline to place his characters against an impossibly huge cosmic canvas. When Lowery let his Terrence Malick fandom show in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the results felt like pure affectation: all whispery borrowed style, no substance. With A Ghost Story, he hasn’t entirely emerged from that fellow Texan’s long shadow, but he has made something that—in its compact way—reaches for the kind of big questions Malick has made a career lyrically raising. I also see plenty of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul in the film’s collision of the mundane and the supernatural, and also some of Joe’s spiritual Taiwanese bedfellow Tsai Ming-liang, particularly in a pie-eating scene that’s no so unlike the cabbage-eating scene in Stray Dogs. That Lowery’s latest can be honestly compared to those masters of world cinema is a reflection of the big creative leap he’s made. That the film still manages to cultivate its own identity, its own soul, on top of that is something else.
As usual, seeing a bunch of films consecutively, with little time for mental marination in between, provokes natural connections. One could easily see communion, for example, between A Ghost Story and another poetic study of emotional and architectural spaces, equally possessed of a style that recalls Asian filmmaking trends as much as American ones. In the tranquil Columbus (Grade: B+), two strangers bond over their shared loneliness and against the buildings of Columbus, Indiana, a Midwest town well known for its modern architecture. The Korean-born Jin (John Cho) has arrived to visit his famous-architect father, who’s fallen into a coma. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a year out of high school but avoiding college, mostly out of fear of leaving her recovering-addict mother. The two meet by chance and then drift into a periodic, multi-day conversation.
Unlike A Ghost Story, this really is a small film, attuned to the rhythms of a non-bustling city and focused on lives uneventful enough to be called ordinary. Kogonada, a film critic making his feature debut, is clearly inspired by the lightly philosophical, long-form conversations of Richard Linklater and Jem Cohen; he seems more interested in his characters’ insights about life, art, and modern architecture—in what fascinates them and why—than in the plot hurdles he’s placed in their way. (The moments of dramatic conflict are the film’s least interesting.) But for whatever or whoever Kogonada is channeling, he’s made his own movie, one distinguished by its particular focus on setting. Working with cinematographer Elisha Christian, the director films in gorgeously lit, carefully composed wide shots, placing the actors against the structures they so frequently find themselves discussing—an approach unlike that of most fledgling American filmmakers. It’s a lovely debut.
Richardson’s Split costar Anya Taylor-Joy is also here at Sundance with a formally accomplished directorial debut built around the conversations between two characters. But that’s about all Columbus has in common with Thoroughbred (Grade: A-), Cory Finley’s razor-witted black comedy. Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a chipper boarding-school student who rekindles her friendship with estranged childhood bestie Amanda (Olivia Cooke), mostly because the latter’s mother has paid her handsomely to do so. There’s something not quite right about Amanda: She’s done a ghastly thing to her family’s horse—an incident the other kids gossip about relentlessly. And during the girls’ obligatory reunion, Amanda casually confesses that she feels no emotions about anything (and never has, really). She’s an intelligent, spookily self-aware sociopath, and Thoroughbred’s wickedly funny opening stretch promises a twisted mismatched-buddy comedy about an uptight do-gooder under both social and financial obligation to tolerate the “off-putting” behavior of a “creepy” confidante from her past.
But Thoroughbred isn’t so easily pegged. It’s superbly unpredictable, moving fluidly into thriller territory and back again. Though the late Anton Yelchin pops up in an amusing supporting role as a very small-potatoes drug dealer who gets mixed up in the girls’ misadventures, the film belongs to its leads, both alums of Sundance 2015. Cooke plays her character’s complete lack of feeling to a deadpan hilt, while still managing to make her oddly likable, even sympathetic. Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, really proves that her quaking intensity in The Witch was no fluke, diabolically peeling back Lily’s layers as the film unfolds over four plot-pivoting chapters. Not that a couple of incredible performances is all Thoroughbred has going for it. Finley directs the hell out of it, making particularly good use of offscreen sound (plus the tense tick-tick-tick of an atonal soundtrack) and staging nifty little suspense set-pieces, like one involving the automatic floodlights at Lily’s house. Focus Features has picked it up. All told, I think we have a future teenage-riot cult classic on our hands.
It’s no coincidence or surprise that all three of the above films are part of Sundance’s Next program, designed to highlight the work of (more or less) new filmmakers. Next has become the surest bet for something interesting at this festival. It’s where Alex Ross Perry premiered Listen Up Philip a few years ago, for example. Perry has now graduated to the competition slate—a common festival career path here in Park City—and has also achieved enough cachet to draw Hollywood’s attention, given both his upcoming gig penning the new Winnie The Pooh movie and the crowd of celebrities (Tim Robbins, Gael García Bernal, Nick Offerman) spotted at last night’s world premiere at the Park City Library.
In fact, Perry’s apparently got enough of a name at this point to convince a bunch of recognizable actors to play tedious, miserable windbags in a bad imitation of ’70s European talkfests (or the Woody Allen versions of them—same difference). Golden Exits (Grade: C-) is a bizarre, clumsy misstep for the writer-director, misplacing both his talent for homage (past recipients include John Cassavetes, Wes Anderson, and Roman Polanski) and for writing acerbically witty scoundrels. Emily Browning plays an Australian twentysomething who draws the romantic interest of two married men: her archivist boss Nick (Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, never less cool) and recording-studio owner Buddy (Jason Schwartzman). Meanwhile, the majority of the female characters—including Nick’s wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), Buddy’s wife Jess (Analeigh Tipton), and Alyssa’s sister Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker)—stand around delivering long, mopey, overwritten monologues about their discontent, like the stars of a black-box Ingmar Bergman parody. “People never really make films about ordinary people who don’t do anything,” someone says early on, in what’s probably meant as a self-aware description of the work itself. But a later line of dialogue comes closer: “This is all so boring. There’s nothing to fixate on.”