Perhaps the most audacious touch of A Ghost Story, which opens today at the Landmark Century and the River East 21, is writer-director David Lowery’s decision to forgo the use of special effects in portraying the movie’s ghosts. Lowery depicts ghosts with actors standing under bedsheets, bringing to mind cheap Halloween costumes from childhood. The ghosts aren’t at all scary—rather, they seem ordinary, even a little pathetic. One can’t recognize the ghosts’ emotions, since their only facial features are provided by eyeholes in the sheets. As a result, they come across as unchanging, impotent presences, a little like crudely drawn cartoon characters. The effect can be slightly funny, but it’s ultimately sad. These ghosts are unable to express much of anything.
For its first half, A Ghost Story imagines the day-to-day life of a dead musician (Casey Affleck) haunting the east Texas home he once shared with his wife (Rooney Mara). The musician stands by idly as the wife silently performs household chores, grieves, and eats. It seems like a boring existence, especially since Lowery allows scenes to linger on after they’ve made their point. (Adding to the film’s sense of confinement, Lowery shot the film in the boxy ratio of 1.33:1. One is constantly aware of the narrow parameters of the frame, its dimensions reflecting Affleck’s limited choices in how he can interact with the space of the home.) In fact I was a little bored while watching these passages, their emotional impact only registering with me later. I imagine this was Lowery’s intent—it’s appropriate that a film about haunting should haunt its audience, expanding in one’s imagination after it ends.
This early portion of A Ghost Story emphasizes mood over plot, often feeling like a song. I suspect Lowery will receive some flack for a lengthy scene that shows a grieving Mara sitting on her kitchen floor and eating half a pie—the film’s aesthetic comes close to reaching its breaking point here. (The scene reminded me a bit of a similarly drawn-out moment between Lee Kang-sheng and a cabbage in Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs.) Yet I now admire Lowery’ willingness to go so far in his depiction of downtime. This passage has stayed with me, and as I’ve reflected on Mara’s performance, I’ve thought more about how this talented actress portrayed the character’s sadness and powerlessness over the death of her husband. In this moment, her feelings of impotence parallel those of her dead spouse—she’s communing with his spirit without knowing it.
Affleck’s desire to stay connected to his wife becomes more poignant after she moves away and he continues to haunt their home, having forgotten why he went there in the first place. The scenes following Mara’s departure move more speedily than those that came before it; more residents come and go, but the ghost remains, unconnected to the new homeowners and increasingly disconnected from himself. In a particularly moving passage, the sheeted Affleck observes as a single mother and her children move in, personalize the small house, and celebrate Christmas. One thinks of the family Affleck and Mara might’ve had, the joys they might’ve experienced had they gotten to grow old together. Lowery doesn’t stress this sense of loss, though, focusing instead on life continuing. Affleck’s presence is defined by his lack of involvement in events—this may make the film seem dramatically inert as it transpires, but its effect is moving over time.
Time becomes a principal theme as A Ghost Story enters its second half. (Readers who haven’t seen the film may want to stop reading here; spoilers follow.) Soon after the single mother and her kids move out of the house, Affleck observes a party being thrown by the next homeowners. Playing one of the party guests, Will Oldham delivers an extended monologue about the possible fate of humanity after the collapse of civilization. (It’s probably the best acting Oldham has done.) With this scene, Lowery harkens back to the images of the cosmos that appear early on in the film. Affleck now seems to represent all people as seen from a cosmic vantage point—a fleeting presence defined by its inability to make an impact on the universe as a whole.
After the party scene, the film moves further into the future, showing the destruction of Affleck’s former home and the development of a high-rise apartment building that goes up in its place. Affleck, now ungrounded in space, becomes unstuck in time, getting thrown back a few hundred years to observe the first settlers who find the land that will one day be his property. This is the movie’s eeriest passage, as Lowery doesn’t explain how Affleck travels into the past; perhaps he has been left to the whims of the universe. With nothing else to do, Affleck simply waits for Mara to reappear, the plot of A Ghost Story coming full circle.
The speed with which these later passages unfold make one miss the slowness of the earlier scenes, when characters made more significant impressions. But that seems to be the point. Lowery wants to imagine how it would feel to lose one’s identity and, with it, one’s connection to time and space. What a depressing hell that must be, and what an aching film A Ghost Story is.