The most provocative thing about writer and director David Lowery’s latest film, A Ghost Story, is probably the ghost itself. If nothing else, you’ve likely seen the iconic image on the film’s poster. Like a Charlie Brown Halloween costume, we’re presented with a man standing placid in a sheet with holes cut out for eyes. If this seems silly to you, you’re not wrong. But it’s not an accident; Lowery’s aware of what the image evokes. It’s only natural to giggle, and at the same time, I encourage you to let this meditative film about grief, attachment and the relentless passage of time into the icy corners of your heart.
The film stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, listed in the titles as characters “M” and “C,” respectively. The couple inhabits a quaint, tiny house somewhere in Texas that’s both suburban and somehow isolated from the rest of the world. In the first few scenes, we observe a couple that’s still in love, but they’re mired in a bit of a stalemate. Mara wants to move away, and Affleck’s attached to the house for reasons that can’t be fully articulated. Sentimentality, history—the reasons are powerful, but ephemeral, so on a long enough timeline, of course, it’s an argument that he will lose.
The film is just 92 minutes, but Lowery offsets the brief running time with a series of uninterrupted, often uncomfortably long takes. There’s something voyeuristic and creepy about an aerial shot of a couple talking over the most intimate nuances of their relationship while dreamily kissing, and then to have it go on and on … Lowery’s walking a fine line here between artistic nuance and pretense, but stick with it. I felt uncomfortable too, but I got the feeling these were tests of our endurance in preparation for something greater to come.
It’s necessary to reveal here that Affleck dies, and it’s his soul that’s doomed to haunt the story with the weight of so much unfinished business. Mara grieves at the foot of his covered corpse in the morgue, then exits the shot, and there’s that lingering camera again. After a while, the corpse sits up straight, climbs off the slab and slowly makes his way back to the home that he didn’t want to give up in life and so can’t help but pitifully cling to in death.
Back at the house, we get a mourning, lonely Mara, with Affleck under the sheet watching helplessly, intrusively in the background. I can’t think of another film wherein I’ve felt grief conveyed so thoroughly with so little actually happening. It’s more than sad.
Maybe you’ve heard about the much discussed scene wherein a grief-stricken Mara eats an entire pie in one take. “What acting!” the viewers murmur. Can I just take a timeout on the praisefest to say: big deal. Mara’s performance throughout is so nuanced and mesmerizing, it cheapens the overall effect to belabor the pie. I’m the worst actor you’ve ever met, and I guarantee you that if called upon, I could eat an entire pie and then run out of the frame to spit it out again. Easy.
Eventually Mara leaves, the ghost stays behind, new families move in and life continues cruelly on without him. There are haunts and poignant eavesdropped moments, but mostly, steel yourself for a lot of stillness. All the while, the film has a peculiar and devastating take on the cyclical nature of time and how it might be experienced for an attached soul.
It’s been seven months since I first saw this picture at Sundance and it feels like yesterday. This is a story that sticks.
A Ghost Story opens at the Roxy Fri., Aug. 4.