My favorite film from Sundance and probably my favorite of the year so far, director David (Pete’s Dragon) Lowery’s A Ghost Story, brings together the filmmaker’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints co-stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a young couple, very much in love, living a quiet, isolated life, who have their entire world ripped out from under them and replaced with something…quite different. And that’s when things get interesting and a tad difficult to explain, which is of course just the kind of cinematic environment that sparks the conversations I love.
Early in the film, Affleck’s character (referred to as “M” in the credits; Mara is called “C,” although I don’t remember names being used at all in the film) is killed in a car accident. Mara comes to identify the body in the hospital morgue, and after she leaves the room distraught, Affleck rises up from the slab—still under the sheet that covers his entire body, with two, precisely cut eye holes suddenly apparent—and walks home. Once he arrives there, he spends the rest of the film silently watching over his suffering wife. As the title indicates…or so we think. He is a draped form sharing the same space with her, never influencing or disturbing her directly, and the impact is devastating. I’m guessing that anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one will know that sensation, that feeling that the recently departed is watching us—not to scare, not to protect, just watching—and A Ghost Story captures that uneasy feeling of a presence to perfection.
Something about Mara’s sadness and semi-destructive behavior after M’s death is made all the more tragic by having this audience of one. We get no sense of Affleck’s reactions to her (or even his facial features; it could be anyone under that sheet, but we know it’s him), which is sometimes amusing, but usually quite touching and melancholy. But lest we think M is there to watch over Mara, something occurs later in the film that makes us realize that he is, in fact, tied to the house and not his wife, adding a curious wrinkle to the classic haunted house set up. He makes a comment early in the film about liking their slightly shabby home because of its history, and now he’s become a part of that.
Lowery and his small crew made this film in about three weeks on a nothing budget, just days after he completed the Pete’s Dragon shoot, yet nothing about the production feels hurried or cheap. It’s a lovely, quiet, very personal story shot in a house that was scheduled to be torn down before the director swooped in, shot for a couple weeks and then filmed the tear down—a crucial turn in what little story there is. The filmmaker considers the idea of not just the previous occupants of the house, but also the many emotions that have occupied the space over the decades, leaving residual ghosts of their own. A particularly telling moment occurs when M looks out the window of his home and sees another ghost in the house next door. They have a pleasant conversation (via subtitles only) and then go back to their haunting business.
If you’re having trouble seeing how this situation might be interesting cinema, trust me, I’m having trouble explaining it, partly because I don’t want to ruin the aesthetic or what actually occurs. When Mara moves out, the linear nature of M’s ghost goes a bit wonky as time moves backward and forward, and we see everything from a pioneer family setting up stakes on the property for the first time to a towering building being constructed on the location far in the future. All manner of details about the couple are left to the wind, including what decade they are living (and dying) in. It seems like a modern-set film (especially when you hear musician M’s electronica compositions), but there seems room left to grow into the future. None of that really matters; A Ghost Story is about the cumulative impact, about the lives that inhabit a space called Home, and what it takes for that feeling of being watched by a late loved one to pass, assuming it ever does.
A Ghost Story is a film I’m desperate to see again, if only to understand how and why it brought me such a great sense of comfort, as if Lowery knows something that the rest of us only suspect. Mara gives an incredibly nuanced performance here, going through every emotion possible, and even finding a few new ones, especially in those moments when she dares to try to find happiness again, feels horribly guilty, and retreats back into her sorrowful well. And Affleck, having many of the tools of the acting trade taken away from him by a bed sheet, still finds ways to communicate and convey what’s going on with his ghostly form. It’s a performance that I believe will be studied in the future. For all of these reasons and undoubtedly more that I will discover upon my sixth or seventh viewing, I embrace A Ghost Story as an experimental film that is somehow also quite accessible and deeply moving. It’s a fragile, lovely thing about fragile, lovely people, and a work that requires patience, an open mind, and a love of the unconventional.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.