Musician ‘C’ (Casey Affleck) and his wife ‘M’ (Rooney Mara) prepare to move out of their modest rural bungalow. Their relationship seems to fluctuate, until out of the blue, he’s killed. Rising from a mortuary slab in a white sheet, he returns to his home to observe as his old life drifts slowly away.
The tale of a dead man who haunts his old home wearing a bed sheet with the eyes cut out, A Ghost Story’s semi-absurdist premise shouldn’t work. The shot lengths are somewhere between long and interminable, its star is a faceless presence throughout, and there’s a seven-minute scene with a pie. Some will find it overly grandiose (if you’ve ever wondered what Terrence Malick’s Rentaghost might look like, there are worse places to start looking), while its languorous pacing won’t be to all tastes. Yet, somehow, its gentle ruminations on death and mourning and the passing of time cast a powerful spell.
Certainly a film unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
The film begins quietly, with its central couple, ‘C’ and ‘M’ (with eerie anonymity, Affleck and Mara’s characters are referred to only by their initials), sharing a moment of tenderness on the sofa. “I’m so scared,” M laughs. “Why are you scared?” he asks. “I don’t know.” The exchange proves prophetic. Soon C is lying on a mortuary slab following an off-camera car accident. Here the film’s mysteries begin to reveal themselves. C rises from the dead and, trailing sheets behind him like a Scooby-Doo villain on a budget, returns home.
Invisible to his wife and with time seeming to accelerate, he witnesses as she first grieves then begins to move on with her life. With heartbreaking impassiveness, he just stands by, watching as she brings a date back to the house, and again as she prepares to move out. Across the yard, another sheet-clad spectre appears at the neighbour’s window. Ghost C is not the only one in this linen-clad purgatory, yet he’s very much alone.
Through all this, writer-director David Lowery offers a ghost’s-eye view on our place in the world that throws up the biggest of questions. How long will we be remembered? Can we really expect to live on beyond our deaths? Is everything that marked our time on Earth destined to be washed away? As one partygoer (a peppery cameo from musician Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) muses at a gathering in the house years later, all efforts to be remembered are doomed because, “By and by, the planet will die.” Cheering stuff.
As with Lowery’s first pairing of Affleck and Mara, 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Texan crime romance with echoes of Badlands, the comparisons with Malick are apt again here: in the spirit of The Tree Of Life, A Ghost Story is both deeply intimate and vast in scope, bridging years, then centuries, before looping back on itself. Meanwhile, Daniel Hart’s score stitches together its long takes with sorrowful strings.
What’s hard to imagine is what the more straightforward horror movie Lowery originally conceived would have looked like. The closest he comes to delivering a jump scare is a banging piano lid, or some futzing about with lights as Affleck’s apparition succumbs to impotent rage. What he’s crafted instead is a genre all of its own — existential horror? Limbosploitation flick? Machine-washable indie? It’s difficult, and hard to love, but it’s certainly a film unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
It demands patience and an open mind, but Lowery’s return to his indie roots after Pete’s Dragon is a highly unusual and, at times, emotionally shattering fable.