Don’t be confused by the title of A Ghost Story. I can just imagine the reaction of some unwitting horror-film lovers wandering into a multiplex to see the film on the basis of that title alone. This is measured, minimalist filmmaking to its core, almost making Terrence Malick seem like an action helmer by comparison. But it is not false advertising or in the least bit misleading if you consider the subject matter of this, yes, haunting film that apparently arose in the middle of director David Lowery’s own existential life crisis.
Whatever the reasons for the film’s existence (A24 released it over the weekend to decent box office in four theaters in NY and LA), it is, as I say in my video review above, an ethereal leap into quiet meditations on life, love, loss, grief and the fleeting nature of it all. Lowery, who directed the very different but effective Disney remake Pete’s Dragon last year, also was responsible for the 2013 Sundance sensation Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. That indie picture is more in line with this one, and both have stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in common.
It’s hard to describe a plot as the film is more a series of scenes revolving around the ghostly presence in the modest Texas home where a married couple (Affleck and Mara) live. There are a few mumbled scenes between them at the beginning, as well as a five-minute silent sequence as they cuddle each other in bed (Mara said she actually fell asleep shooting it). This is a movie full of long, distant single shots. Without any setup, the next thing we see is a car accident and Affleck dead at the wheel. After identifying him when the white sheet over his body is lifted in the hospital, Mara heads back home. But Affleck’s sheet-covered body rises from the table and heads down the hall, now with two primitive holes for eyes.
Soon we are back at their house, where his ghostly presence wanders and observes. In one scene, Mara tries to deal with emerging grief by devouring an entire pie as she sits on the kitchen floor. The camera doesn’t move for about six minutes until she finally gets up and vomits. Eventually she moves out, and Affleck’s ghost is left to move among various new tenants over time including a Mexican family. There’s also a party scene where one of the guests (Will Oldham) delivers a painfully negative monologue on the hopeless circle of life. In terms of talking, this is as good as it gets in Lowery’s sparse script, which depends much more on soulful expression, even from the white-sheeted ghosts who somehow emit true emotion without the benefit of pure visual tools actors usually can rely on in order to express feelings.
Mara, who recently appeared in one of Malick’s similarly minimalist exercises, is getting to be a real pro at this sort of thing, and she has the perfect face to express deep grief. Affleck — as we know him, at least — is only in for a few fleeting scenes and a couple of flashbacks. The rest of the time he is covered with the sheet, and for much of it that actually is him (though a substitute, David Pink, was used in some scenes). Lowery effectively creates an atmosphere of gloom and melancholy that gets even more ambitious in the final act, where our ghost gets unstuck in time as well as place. This is unquestionably a personal film not only for its director but also any audience member who will have to bring their own experience into the mix in order to appreciate this supernatural, undeniably hypnotic and deliberately paced 87-minute surreal study of the moment in time that we exist in this life — and beyond. Producers are Adam Donaghey, Toby Halbrooks, and James M. Johnston. A24 will be expanding this across the summer.
Do you plan to see A Ghost Story? Watch my video review and let us know what you think.