A Ghost Story is a cerebral, satisfying film, filled with clues, allusions and subtle imagery that beg repeat viewings.
Though clearly inspired by the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pedro Costa, Terrence Malick and John Carpenter, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is just the kind of sensationally original movie the world needs in this summer of sequels and spinoffs. And though it comes in tidy, bleak packaging, A Ghost Story provides an expansive, universal and spiritually profound experience.
The premise is simple. C (Casey Affleck) dies in a car accident and his sheet-clad ghost returns, invisible to the living, to the run-down home he shared with his wife M (Rooney Mara). The first half hour of A Ghost Story is incredibly somber, almost excessively so, as we watch C watch M suffer. His ghostly shroud is ominous rather than playful, almost gothic, its mournful eye holes fixed on M like an Edward Gorey creation.
If the film were to stay fixed on this relationship, it would be too much to bear. There is just too much sadness in C’s ghost, in M and in their shoddy, crumbling suburban house. This is where writer-director Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) elevates A Ghost Story beyond a simple meditation on grief. Though he keeps his camera takes long and mournful, the story shifts dramatically. M falls in love again and moves on, replaced in the house by a woman and her two young children and, later, a houseful of hard-partying hipsters (including a delightful cameo by singer Kesha).
Though C’s ghost is tied to M, it is also tied to their home, and in her absence, the ghost continues to haunt the house. Soon, the long, slow movements of Lowery’s camera are achieving more than melancholy; he uses them to show the slow passage of time, and the film feels like it lasts for hundreds of years (in a good way) in under 90 minutes. C’s ghost watches as its house is torn down, replaced as the suburbs turn into megalopolis, and then it is flying back through time to observe the property’s first residents, pioneers making a home on the frontier.
It is a profound journey, achieved through imagery and action rather than dialogue. The film is nearly silent, outside of some overheard conversations, a passionate monologue by one of the aforementioned partying hipsters (musician Will Oldham) and some absolutely devastating, subtitled conversation between C’s ghost and a ghost haunting the neighboring home.
Music is also very important to A Ghost Story, both in terms of the production and in terms of the plot, as C was, in life, a musician. Pete’s Dragon composer Daniel Hart does an exceptional job here, with the score and the soundtrack leading to a number of profound moments, most notably the stirring conclusion.
Significantly, A Ghost Story is a cerebral, satisfying film, filled with clues, allusions and subtle imagery that beg repeat viewings. Comparisons will likely be made to the recent It Comes at Night as that both are minimalistic, genre-straddling affairs, but unlike the evasive Night, A Ghost Story is brimming with references. Though it doesn’t explain them overtly, it wants you to uncover its mysteries. When C’s ghost manages to engage in some paranormal activity, knocking books to the floor, the camera settles in on the book’s titles: A Haunted House, Love in the Time of Cholera and a book by Nietzsche. Thinking about these books individually and as a group adds color and texture to the experience, and the film is filled with plenty of other hints and secrets, large and small.
It’s no surprise to see Affleck play a sad character, but this is no Manchester by the Séance. While A Ghost Story does examine grief, it is far more concerned with big thoughts and questions. Affleck’s performance, almost entirely physical as he is shrouded in a heavy sheet, is so effective because of its universality. And though she’s only in about a third of the film, Mara is intensely relatable in a part that features almost no lines. A scene that finds M eating an entire pie in the throws of grief is the film’s buzziest scene and perfectly encapsulates the overwhelming nature of loss.
A Ghost Story is a small film filled with huge ideas. It’s a soulful mediation on what it means to love, what it means to die and what happens after. That these themes can be addressed in an 87-minute film is a testament to the talent of David Lowery and the fantastic team he’s assembled here. Everyone should see A Ghost Story, and if you go in with an open mind you’ll certainly leave
with a full heart.