(This review was originally published January 23rd)
David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) has created something beautiful and singular in A Ghost Story. It’s the kind of film that’s nearly impossible to explain, and while that makes it a tough sell, it’s also what makes it a stunning surprise.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (M and C, respectively) are married and living in a beautiful, secluded house. She is ready to move. He isn’t. That shapes the basis of the small amount of dissonance in their marriage, but they are otherwise perfectly suited to one another. A long, silent scene shows them cuddling in bed. There is no sex, no stirring dialogue, but we are nevertheless made wholly aware of their mutual tenderness.
And then, suddenly, C dies. It’s a car crash, off-screen, unheralded. M stands alone at the morgue, ready to identify his body. After a time, she nods, and then she walks away. Moments pass as we watch his sheet-covered form on the gurney, and then the sheet rises and moves itself off the gurney. There are two black holes in the sheet, where C’s eyes once were. You know the look, that sheeted ghost, but Affleck (and, it must be said, costume designer Annell Brodeur) give that simple, silly form such depth, such personhood.
C follows M to their home, the home he never wanted to leave in life and still cannot leave in death. He watches her grieve – and Rooney Mara is brilliant here, quiet, subtle, extraordinarily affecting – and then he watches her attempt to regroup, and then to eventually move on and move out. The living must keep living when the dead cannot.
C continues to watch, his linen shroud quiet and still but always emotive. He watches a Spanish-speaking family move into his house, and move out. He watches drifters party there, developers turn it into a construction site, and then an office building, and then a taller building. Time passes, time passes. The house becomes something unrecognizable, our world becomes something unrecognizable, and still C never moves.
A Ghost Story is very, very large and very, very small. It’s a haunting (in the vein of Virgina Woolf’s A Haunted House, quite deliberately), it’s a love story. It’s about the universe and our fleeting place in it; it’s about letting things go, and what happens when we cannot.
It’s a quiet film, largely without dialogue, filmed in 1:33:1 to recreate the claustrophobia of C’s eternal, self-made prison and to “telegraph to the audience that this movie wasn't masquerading as a traditional motion picture,” Lowery has said. A Ghost Story certainly isn’t a traditional motion picture – it’s a lovely, meaningful poem of a film, one that encompasses life, love, loss and time itself.