Making A Ghost Story was a daring act by writer/ director David Lowery, and he has delivered a film that proves his worth as a true auteur. Anyone with the vision to imagine this story as a movie, let alone the creativity and courage to bring it to the screen, is an artist to keep an eye on. His biggest movie to date is Pete’s Dragon (2016), with Robert Redford. They work together again on Old Man and the Gun (2018?), which also stars Casey Affleck, who was also in Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with Rooney Mara, who is also in this movie, A Ghost Story. Lowery may be developing a roster of players in a way that so many film directors do, from John Ford and Ingmar Bergman and Mike Leigh and Spike Lee.
The plot is simple but ambitious: A modest bungalow is occupied by an unmarried couple, M (Rooney Mara, the sister with talent) and C (Casey Affleck, the luckiest actor alive, as he admitted in his Oscar speech when he thanked Kenneth Lonergan who “made this part and without this part and without his writing, I wouldn’t be here”). We don’t learn much about M and C, other than that he is a musician and composer, and is soon dead. Early on in the film, he is killed in a car accident, she returns home— and so does he, invisibly, as a ghost who rises up from a slab in the morgue wearing the sheet he was covered with (a powerful image and idea). Time passes, but he stays even after she moves away, haunting the property far into the future as well as the past, as far back as when the first white settlers arrive, and then forward again to the present, when he watches himself and M move in.
This is not a conventional movie in any way. The bold strokes include:
The costume. The special effect here isn’t computer-generated, it’s a sheet thrown over C— but not a standard white percale. This sheet has a poetic quality, the weight of it, the way it drapes heavily and drags along after him. The eye holes are black, and they look increasingly frayed and expressive in the broad fabric that stretches over the face like an immortal skin. In itself, the costume is a work of art.
The lack of dialogue. Most of the movie is silent. The conversation between M and C before his death is sparse and enigmatic, but it suggests trouble in their relationship. The family who takes over the house after M leaves is is Spanish-speaking. The only real speech in the film occurs with the next inhabitants, who throw a party which is dominated by a pedantic nihilist (Will Oldham) who holds forth about the meaning of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or any art, given that the Sun will eventually become a red giant. It’s a monologue that the ghost of C listens to, and when it ends, the lights flicker, which is one of the ways C makes himself known. But it amounts to nothing. The next scene, the house is empty again, except for C’s ghost.
The music. The score by composer Daniel Hart reflects the changing mood of the story with as much variety as any film I can recall. The word, of course, is haunting.
The love story. Frankly, there isn’t one. You can try to read one into it, but M and C seem to be on the rocks, based on the scraps of dialogue we get. When he’s killed, she doesn’t break down at the morgue, she just asks for a few minutes alone. Her emotional response, however, is palpable in another scene. A female Realtor has left her a note (half sympathy, half business) with a pie. M reads the note, tosses it (pausing for 2nd thoughts), and then eats the entire pie in a single go, filmed with two camera shots, first with her standing in the kitchen, then sitting on the floor and eating forkful after forkful. It is a powerful scene if you give yourself over to it. There’s a pie. Food. What do you do with food? You eat it and when you’re in a state where you don’t want to think, where you’re overwhelmed by change and set adrift in sudden solitude, you just take cues from what’s in front of you. A pie. Eat.
The pace. This is a slow movie, and I mean s l o w. I was ready to walk out after the first 10 minutes of stationary camera shots, but I soon realized that what I was watching was the deliberate work of a brave and visionary (if not yet masterful) filmmaker.
There are more details to be discovered and contemplated when you see the film. Among them, the ghost occupying the neighboring house, whose decorated sheet seems to be from a child’s bed. The kinetic bursts of action by C as a ghost, when he’s disturbed. And there are oddities, which unfortunately don’t add anything but confusion to an already mysterious story, e.g., C occupying the same space as his ghost, and a scene where the ghost observes himself as a ghost. Etc.
And, finally, there are the two scribbled notes– one secreted away by M in a door jamb, another left under a rock by a pioneer girl– which we never get to see or read. They remain unknown, a frustration we are left with. And that, the Unknowable, is what “A Ghost Story” asks us to come to terms with.