A Ghost Story isn’t a horror movie, although it finds a way into the same sense of prolonged dread through the deep, eroding existential sadness of its premise; following the grieving process of a young woman (Rooney Mara) following the sudden death of her partner (Casey Affleck), who then proceeds to haunt their home. The pitch is simple, but the execution and vision by director David Lowery is the elevating force behind this morose, devastating and inspiringly original study of grief, progression and what comes after.
The decision to have Casey Affleck’s unnamed lead hidden beneath a white sheet for a majority of his screen time is a bold ask to make of an audience almost indoctrinated to laugh at such a preposterous image, but the garments that drape over Affleck’s stilted frame serve to wipe his humanity away as a literal figment of the person who used to be. A black, expressionless shape who wonders helplessly between the rooms of the place he once called home, bound to the house in a literal and metaphorical sense unable to move on. Andrew Droz Palermo’s 1:33:1 cinematography and faded pallet bring to the film the same timeless and aged look as Lowery’s prior mood piece Ain't Them Bodies Saints.
Affleck is gently moving here, but Mara is the tender nerve of the film's emotions as over the first half we watch almost silently as she comes to terms with her loss. The opening scenes of Mumblecore dialogues linger over the gentle cradling of bodies, and the moments of silent intimacy worth remembering of those we love. In the film’s most powerful scene, Mara finally arrives home and in a depressed slump on the kitchen floor consumes an entire pie, in one take, in real-time. The effect of the scene is arduous, testing and desperately sad as Lowery’s phenomenal restraint and camera positioning leaves us as stranded as she is, and the longer the moment goes on it transcends from voyeuristic into empathetic without a single beat having been hit.
Where the film goes from this point is an experience to be savoured, as time contracts and dilates through our ghosts eyes and the world he knew transforms and moves on around him, and figures similar to him struggle to find their own peace while he continues to wallow. The magnitude of the smallest personal decisions can have more impact than an entire house being torn to the ground, as lifetimes pass in instants, and memories serve as the only link to the past for those still living that isn’t bound by tangible certainty. The philosophical musings of how finite and fragile life can be, and how in the cosmic spectrum of supposed infinity by corporeal lifeforms is ultimately a fallacy – as the earth, the stars and the universe we inhabit will all inevitably die – are dark and narcissistic sounding considerations that the film uses to its thematic and spiritual advantage of wordless character growth.
The film threatens to lose its self-possession and meditative calm when these themes become vocalised in the text, in particular in a lengthy nihilist monologue from a house guest (played by folk artist Will Oldham) that spells out the intricacies of the films intention in a rather needless, but none the less thoughtful routine. But a particular sequence in which the literalisation of Affleck’s emotional state takes hold in the form of poltergeist activity is going to throw many as maybe going a step too far.
There are moments within A Ghost Story where it feels like this could be David Lowery’s own The Tree of Life. Given a larger budget or scope, the final movement of the film could have transformed into something far more abstract, but to do so would probably be to undercut the modest and intimate scale of Lowery’s vision. As with Daniel Hart's wheezing ambient score of deep strings, the film never crescendos but settles into its own frame of mind early on and seeks its own form of self-effacing elaboration. It requires patience, but its muted reward feels worth the melancholic journey.