It turns out that the perfect opportunity for an existential dilemma is when you no longer exist. With a cheeky title like A Ghost Story, it’s no surprise that David Lowery’s movie isn’t a typical tale of paranormal activity—but even that won’t prepare you for the film’s unpredictable, emotional odyssey through love, death, longing and time. It might even be one of the most epic sub-90-minute movies ever made.
The best ghost stories usually show an interest in their ghosts’ feelings and motivations: Past lives, forbidden loves, misfortunes and crimes propel these plots with mystery and urgency—though a living protagonist almost always dictates the audience’s perspective. Ghosts are only main characters in the ways they can directly interact with and alter the world of the living. A Ghost Story discards that convention entirely, instead set on relaying the experience of one soul realizing its eternal insignificance.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as a couple, perhaps married, identified in the credits as C and M, respectively. They live in a simple, old house. He’s attached to it, she wants to move. We get a sense of friction because of that conflict, but we’re also offered genuine affection, especially when the two cuddle after a startling bang on C’s piano wakes them in the middle of the night. Then, just as we’re getting to know them via mumbled dialogue and C’s songwriting, he dies unexpectedly in a car accident.
In the aftermath, the movie takes its time to reveal its bold intentions. When the C’s ghost rises from the morgue, sheet over his body, and heads through open fields to his former house, it’s only natural to expect that he will forge a relationship with his mourning widow. Hell, they could even make pottery together. The ghost, raised on the same stories we were, probably expects that too. Instead, he’s forced to watch his wife sink into despair, grief-eat an enormous funeral pie (in a remarkable long take orchestrated by Lowery and DP Andrew Droz Palermo) and eventually leave him and the house behind. This isn’t a haunting so much as a witnessing.
Writer/director Lowery is already comfortable with both indie projects (Ain’t Them Body Saints) and high-profile Disney films (2016’s Pete’s Dragon). Perhaps this success has given him the freedom to do a small, low-budget film and not worry about whether people will call it pretentious or boring. A Ghost Story’s dialogue is quiet and sometimes hard to make out, takes are long and deliberate, and the cinematography is muted, not to mention in the out-of-favor (albeit still used) 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio
With these elements, Lowery captures time in its vastness and loneliness. Time is, after all, the most dramatic difference between the living’s and the dead’s points of view, something that’s taken for granted in most movies (pacing problems and flashbacks aside). But time becomes more and more significant to our ghost as he lingers, and as the camera lingers along with him. The longer C’s been dead, the more we lose clarity on just how much time has passed.
Once the rhythm of possible eternity creeps in, A Ghost Story taps into every human’s struggle with individual significance and a lack there of. Both the past and future exist, whether or not we’re around to insert our own love stories or songs into them. C’s ghost not only has to see life in his absence, but, as things get metaphysical and time eventually loops, he has to relive his past while powerless to change it. When C’s ghost is able to break through to the living world, it’s only in frustration, and he can do little besides make some noise and frighten people: a perfect distillation of the impotent need to be heard, felt and feared.
The ghost’s design is deceptively simple: an iconic sheet with holes for eyes. There is, in fact, more going on beneath the sheet to make the ghost look substantial, to have discernible body language, but Lowery’s use of such a classic childhood trope somehow makes his striking images indelible—a familiar image used to upend a genre. It’s a serious challenge to convey emotions without the benefit of facial expressions, and that’s where Lowery’s filmmaking is most impressive. He connects to the ghost’s inner turmoil visually. Indeed, the most substantial and clear dialogue in the film comes from a drunken party guest (Will Oldham) whose philosophy could be embraced as the crux of the film or dismissed as philosophical rambling—the film works with either take.
A Ghost Story rewards viewers who are willing to engage with it, to accept its evolving premise and experience the expressionless specter’s afterlife as it reveals itself. Our lives may be the sum of our actions, but the world is also the sum of the things we have no power to act upon. If that sounds a bit heavy, there are plenty of other ghost stories out there.
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo
Release Date: July 7, 2017