It’s hard to quantify the audacity it took for David Lowery to make this film. It’s a ghost story, a haunting meditation on life, loss, and mankind’s place in the universe, that features a man under a sheet with the eye holes poked out. Yes, the ghost of the title is your last minute Halloween costume from when you were a kid—and somehow, improbably, that’s part of the film’s poignancy.
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When the film starts, we meet a married couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara—called C and M in the credits. He’s a composer and musician, it’s not clear what she does. They’re getting ready to move from their somewhat isolated, ranch-style house (we find out later, it was her idea to move.) At night, there’s a mysterious crashing sound on the piano; the shadow of a wind chime flickers eerily on a wall—is the house haunted? Is that why they’re leaving? As a couple, they have a natural physical intimacy, a nearly wordless simpatico. And then, there’s a car crash. We don’t see the crash, but Lowery lingers briefly on C’s lifeless body hunched over the steering wheel. M goes to ID the body; she’s not histrionic, just slow and sad, in keeping with the film’s rhythms. And then, C gets up from the gurney in the morgue, the sheet draped over him, the eyeholes poked out, and follows her home.
It’s hard to explain how uncanny and strange C’s silent, looming presence is. At first, you laugh—and that’s okay, you’re allowed to! A few times, Lowery frames the shot in such a way that the “ghost” takes you by surprise, gooses you in an almost traditional horror way. Mostly, he just stands there, useless, sad, silent. Time passes, because that’s what time does. M leaves the house, but he’s stuck there. He has a purpose: To dig out the small note M left behind in a wall—a way of reminding herself she was once there, she told him when they were both alive—and read it. A new family moves in. He’s angry. He scares them. They move out. A rave party takes place, where a philosopher-poet (Will Oldham) freaks out his fellow party-goers by talking about man’s need to leave behind signifiers in a doomed world. More things happen—but not too much (until the very end). The film is defiantly slow. At one point, M expresses her grief by eating an entire pie a friend dropped off and we watch her, sitting on the kitchen floor, slowly and almost somnambulistically chew it, bit by bit.
But your patience will be more than rewarded. A Ghost Story has images, ideas, a deep reservoir of sadness about life, death, and grief, that will stay with me for a while. It unsettled me, deeply, and rocked me way out of my comfort zone. More films should do that.