Interrupted by death, a couple's love finds a weird way forward in this slice of supernatural risk-taking.
As lovely, mysterious and cosmic as horror movies get—maybe it’s better just to drop "horror" altogether—A Ghost Story marshals an eerie hush from the start. In its early scenes, we see a house, squarely situated behind a generous front lawn. Inside dwell two thirtyish marrieds, nameless throughout, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, well paired in scruffy intensity. From dribs and drabs of spare dialogue, we feel the slightest tension between them. Yet in the darkness of their bedroom, we feel a real connection. They kiss gently, shifting their bodies in sympathy, and the spooning session is of a piece with the movie’s skyward-tipping Terrence Malick–like grabs, composer Daniel Hart’s aching orchestral shimmers and fields of swirling stars.
Writer-director David Lowery (who used Affleck and Mara in the similarly interior Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is taking his time here, adjusting us to a slower tempo for reasons that will pay off beautifully. Widening out on another foggy morning, we take in the shocking sight of a smoldering car wreck, with Casey Affleck’s character dead behind the wheel. He’s gone, and before you brace for the clichés of typical movie grieving, we notice—well, a ghost. In a white bed sheet. With black cut-out eyes. At first it sits up on a hospital gurney, almost confused. It meanders down the fluorescent-lit hallway, unnoticed. And it turns up in the corner of the couple’s living room, like some weird lamp.
Don’t be ashamed to giggle. The collision of aesthetics—a cartoonish, Halloween-costume-grade specter haunting a quiet indie—is the point where A Ghost Story asks the most of us. But how thrilling it is to be jostled. Lowery is spending the capital he’s earned on big gigs like Pete’s Dragon to make something bizarre and experimental, and as his film starts flitting through the weeks in unannounced leaps, you’ll come to appreciate his gamble. The ghost, an inspired creation of costume designer Annell Brodeur, is remarkably expressive for its opacity (that can’t be Affleck under there the whole time). It’s a lonely, stranded figure, unable to get Swayzean with a potter’s wheel or cry out its love.
Instead the movie blooms around it. Mara excels during these scenes, especially during one breathless five-minute-long take in which she sits alone on the floor of her kitchen and gobbles down an entire pie left by a consoling friend. A Ghost Story often feels like a invasion of her privacy, and the intimacy speaks volumes about the way life goes on, even in extremis. The ghost can’t leave—it never will, even after a new family moves in (they’ll soon get their own private performance of Poltergeist), or the house is razed for a sleek office-building years in the future.
Lowery is committing to nothing less than the scope of eternity; frankly, sometimes it feels as much. But by doing so, he does more to explore supernatural sadness than any thriller I can think of. He’s crafted something strange and wonderful, with a romantic metaphysics all its own—a film that dares to put those special-effects squads out of business. We never needed them to begin with.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew