Film Review: A Ghost Story

A wrenching, remarkable masterpiece about love and loss, life and death, from one of America’s great directors.
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A good rule of cinematic thumb is that when a ghost movie isn’t trying to scare you: Watch out. Hijinks or romance are sure to follow, and not with good results. Casper, High Spirits, Ghost—it’s a movie wasteland. It’s also generally best to avoid movies whose specters are visible, since what one can’t see is almost always more terrifying than what you can see; invisibility just leaves open too many possibilities. Somehow, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) has aggressively flouted these rules in A Ghost Story—by first not caring a whit whether you are scared and then giving his ghosts highly unusual corporeal form—and come out the other side with a truly spectacular movie.

The suburban ranch house that the movie remains almost completely tethered to for the entire story almost seems haunted even before the first ghost appears. Residents C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a couple stewing in a vaguely defined thirty-something disaffection. Their conversation is mostly physical, glances and silences that Lowery weaves with a rumbling soundtrack and painterly square-ratio cinematography into a resonant texture of conflicted love and frustration. The tension of C and M’s unspoken running argument, something to do with moving, is decanted into the added anxiety caused by the spooky noises they keep hearing.

Their problems become moot once a wide long pan—one of the few times Andrew Droz Palermo’s watchful camera does much of any moving here—shows two cars wrecked in front of the house, with C dead inside one of them. In an audacious move that will divide most audiences right from the start, once M has identified C’s corpse in the morgue, his ghost appears simply by having C sit up and start walking around. Still covered in his white morgue blanket, C is soon back at the house, waiting for M.

At first, it’s hard not to see the eyeholes cut in his ghost sheet as some gag. But even though Lowery’s no-budget solution to the question of spectral manifestation can read as overly cute—or at worst, tone-deaf, as when the white-sheeted C pauses in front of a black man in a wheelchair, in a manner that can read only as threatening—it quickly fades from the foreview. By simply asking viewers to accept C as a ghost because he’s dressed in this manner, doesn’t speak and moves with a deliberate slowness, the movie directly accesses childhood conceptions of spirits. It also ensures that his otherness is never in question, unlike movies that work overtime to make their ghosts seem no different than the living, only weightless and see-through.

At first, A Ghost Story moves at a deliberate, trancelike pace that purposefully harkens to the spooky longueurs of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetery of Splendor). C watches M get through her days in stoic fashion, a process that peaks in one long heartbreaking take where her stress-eating a pie pivots slowly to tear-struck grief. Since C doesn’t speak, everything around him has to carry the weight of his stubborn grief. With the exception of the occasional ability to affect objects in the physical world (a flickering light here, a frightened child there), C’s only communication is with other ghosts. One of Lowery’s more deftly handled moments comes when C notices another sheeted ghost in the neighboring house. Their communication via waves and silent subtitled dialogue weaves deadpan comedy with soulful sadness.

The more Lowery throws at C, the more the movie expands from a beautifully photographed story of loss to a broader meditation on the ebb and flow of time. Other residents move in, threatening C’s connection to M and even his whole reason for staying. Lowery signals that A Ghost Story’s title is at least tongue-in-cheek during a long soliloquy, on death and really the pointlessness of bothering with anything in a universe doomed to forever expand and contract, delivered with aggressive surety by a guest (Will Oldham, who worked on the music for Pete’s Dragon) at a loud house party that takes place many years after M has moved out.

The longer this goes on, the less tied C and the movie are to strict plot causality. At the same time, the pace accelerates. The story uses C and M’s seemingly innocuous debate between moving or staying put as the starting point for a grand yet somehow unpretentious investigation of cosmology, the afterlife and the circularity of time that feels something like a Terrence Malick movie with a pulse. The emotional final scenes are just plain shattering.

It’s not clear what Lowery has that makes him capable of creating art like this, particularly after the retro dullness of Pete’s Dragon and the gorgeous but thin Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. But whatever that thing is, we need more of it.

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