A woman sits alone in a house. She is grieving the death of her husband, whose ghost stands watching nearby. The dead husband is draped in a white sheet with holes for eyes—a grown man in a child’s Halloween costume. Neither wife nor ghostly husband are doing anything in particular, but it’s clear that both are sad, struggling with the emotional desolation of life after death. Whether you find this melancholy but dramatically static image poignant, and whether that poignancy alone can sustain you for the runtime of an entire movie, will help predict your enjoyment of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, a film that is by turns devastating and confounding, absorbing and alienating.
The couple, named only in the credits as M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck), are both alive and well at the film’s opening, living in a house haunted by mysterious coronas of light and things that go bump in the night. But soon C dies and becomes the thing haunting the house, watching passively as M first mourns him, then begins to move on. In this early stretch the film’s core subject is grief, and the difficulty of letting go—letting go of a loved one (for M) and letting go of one’s own life (for C).
The film’s other major topic is time, whose passage the audience feels viscerally as the runtime of A Ghost Story ticks by, second by second—which is another way of saying the movie is very, very slow. This is evident right from the start, when writer-director Lowery gives us long shots that linger far past the point when most films would have cut away: an establishing shot of the house, a scene in which M and C languidly kiss in bed, the slow revelation of the car crash that takes C’s life.
The best by far of these time-expanding scenes is an early one in which M, newly bereaved, returns home to discover that a friend has left her a homemade pie and a note of condolence. She reads the note, tears off the aluminum foil, and proceeds to eat the pie directly from the pan over the course of (I’m guessing) five minutes. The scene, presented in two unbroken shots, is a tour de force of wordless acting by Mara, who plays the scene as a woman on the verge of a complete emotional breakdown, barely holding back tears, stabbing at the pie like she’s trying to murder it, and shoveling the food into her mouth as though simultaneously trying to fill a deep emptiness and drive herself to sickness. The tyranny of time is that it never stops moving forward, yet some moments seem to stretch into eternity, and watching the scene you get the sense that for M this is one of those moments, one she’ll remember for as long as she lives—that one time after C died and I ate a whole pie in the kitchen. If she can’t escape the emotional desolation of the present moment, then why should we?
C’s ghost looks on as all this is happening, which becomes the template for the rest of the film—a ghost just sort of observing things. Lowery’s choice to portray the ghost as a person with a white sheet draped over his head could have gone badly wrong, but the film reclaims this image, so stereotypical as to become silly, and somehow makes it powerful again. At times the image of C’s ghost is whimsical, as when he talks in subtitles with a different ghost in the house next door, whose own sheet is patterned with flowers. Other times, the image of the ghost is eerie, even gothic, the folds of his sheet filmed like the train of a ceremonial gown, reminding the audience that these are, after all, burial shrouds. The throwback-creepiness of the imagery is amplified by the equally-odd decision to film in a square rather than rectangular aspect ratio, making the movie feel like a Polaroid photograph or an old Victorian daguerreotype come to life.
C looks on as M mourns him, moves on, then ultimately moves out; he watches as other occupants live their lives in the same house; and he watches as the house is finally razed, sending the film into its surprising and elegiac third act. As the film progresses, its scope moves beyond M and C’s marriage to encompass philosophical questions about the impermanence of human life in the face of the vastness of the universe and the inexorable march of time. (In this connection between the personal and the cosmic, A Ghost Story will be reminiscent for some of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.)
If the film suffers in this latter stretch, it’s because it just doesn’t have enough ideas about these philosophical questions, and the one or two it does have aren’t original enough to justify the film’s feature-length runtime. The pie scene mentioned earlier exemplifies the film’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a great bit of filmmaking, worth the price of admission in itself. But it does go on for too long—we’d have gotten the point after two or three minutes—and it ends in the most disappointingly expected way imaginable.
So it is with the film—it’s haunting and defiantly original, but ultimately there’s just not enough happening on-screen literally or conceptually to completely reward the audience’s attention, which has been amply taxed by the time the credits roll. A Ghost Story is formally daring, and I love it that Lowery paused between directing Disney reboots of Pete’s Dragon and Peter Pan to make what is essentially a bizarre little art film. (More directors should do this!) But that daring makes it all the more disappointing that the film’s worldview can be tidily summed up in a single character monologue. As the movie drew to its close I kept waiting for another beat that almost but never quite came, and in the end I found myself stirred—but also slightly underwhelmed.