Less a story than a conceptual art piece, “A Ghost Story” delivers on its promise of a ghost but, by design, does not deliver any thrills or chills. Instead it’s a ponderous look at love, loss and legacy.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as characters simply identified as C and M. Married, they are planning to move from their country bungalow when tragedy strikes. C is killed in a car accident on the road next to their home. In the morgue M identifies the body, seen in a sterile white tile room, covered in a starched white sheet. When she leaves the room he rises from the slab, covered head-to-toe à la a children’s Halloween ghost costume, complete with two holes cut for eyes.
The ghost returns home and, unbeknownst to M, watches her as she grief eats an entire pie, drunkenly kisses a man on the stoop and packs up the house for her eventual relocation. M leaves and he turns increasingly violent when a new family moves in becoming Casper-The-Not-So-Friendly-Ghost, breaking plates and scaring the kids. Tenants come and go. He communicates with another sheet-wearing spirit a few houses down. Time passes; days, weeks, months, years even centuries. When the house is torn down, replaced with a skyscraper, he pads around the offices, haunting meetings until entering a meta time cycle that sees him thrust into the distant past.
Shot in a boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, director David Lowery presents “A Ghost Story” with rounded corners like an old photograph. It’s just one of the many sentimental touches in this strange story. At its heart it’s a rumination on the melancholy of feeling helpless as the spirit of C is actually the one being haunted by the living. The inversion of the usual ghost tale deepens the film’s surreal mood, which is both romantic and discomforting.
It won’t be for everyone. The aforementioned five-minute pie-eating scene and a shot where we literally watch paint dry may test the patience of the restless viewer but if you can get on board with the conceit of a ghost dressed in a child’s costume there is much to mull on. What is legacy? How do you move on in the face of great loss? What is the true meaning of love? These are big questions and the movie occasionally gets lost in its philosophical enormity but as audacious, experimental looks at love and life go, it’s unafraid and unapologetic.