I went to see David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story not at the local arthouse but at a multiplex at a mall, the kind with so many screens that it occasionally finds space for something a bit more unusual than the normal fare that usually plays at such places. The general aggressiveness of the distributor A24 probably has something to do with why this decidedly uncommercial film managed to get into a theater like that, but I digress. Funny thing happened when I went; as I entered the theater the usher who took my ticket asked me “what is that movie about.” That was a tricky thing to answer, firstly because I hadn’t actually seen the movie yet (obviously) and secondly because what I had heard about the movie was not really something that could be easily described in the twenty seconds I had to have this conversation. Were I less of an anti-social curmudgeon I might have tried to form a more coherent description, but instead all I could muster was “it’s a meditation on grief,” a description that’s annoyingly cryptic and in retrospect not entirely accurate. Anyway, her response was to say “oh” and I proceeded to see this indescribably idiosyncratic movie in a theater with about five other people (which was more than I expected).
Truth be told even with a decent amount of time and space I’m not exactly sure how to describe this movie without making it sound weird and stupid. It begins by looking in at a couple who are living together in a small house located in what seems to be some distant suburb which is practically a rural area. These two are played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and the characters are never really given names (I’ll be referring to them by actor names for simplicity), they appear to be fairly happy and are living fairly uneventful lives. Then one day the Casey Affleck character dies in a car accident. Rooney Mara’s character begins to mourn but we as the audience start things from a seemingly different perspective. We see Affleck rise from the morgue and begin walking back to his house completely covered in a sheet with two holes in it, like the children’s ghost costume of yore. From there we begin to watch Affleck’s invisible ghost watch Mara as she grieves him and it begins to feel like it will primarily be a movie about her grief as witnessed by the ghost, but in the film’s second half things go in yet another direction.
A Ghost Story is absolutely not going to be a movie for everyone. In fact I was pretty strongly suspecting that it wasn’t going to be for me during its first third or so when we were treated to a couple of extended shots that went on for something like a minute and a half each including a largely unbroken shot where we watch Ghost Casey Affleck watch Rooney Mara eat half of a pie in one grief fueled binge. After about a half hour of that I was thinking “yeah, I get it, is that it?” but then the movie does take something of a left turn and reveals that it has more up its sleeve. Of course the very concept of a movie where a ghost is literally represented by a guy wearing a sheet over his head sounds ridiculous on its surface but within the language of the film that isn’t some kind of snarky joke, it actually looks kind of cool the way this costume drapes over him and he makes these slow and deliberate motions. Director David Lowery shoots the film in the Academy Ratio, but with the corners of the screen curved so as to remind audiences of 8mm home movies rather than Golden Age Hollywood and goes long stretches without dialog and sometimes without cuts.
This is, at the end of the day very much an art film that just so happens to feature celebrity actors. That makes sense but what’s really weird is that it’s director, David Lowery, is actually someone who’s had some mainstream success. Last year he was at the helm of Disney’s $65 million dollar remake of Pete’s Dragon and the fact that he’s followed that up with this idiosyncratic little thing is a bit strange. Usually you’d suspect something like this either from someone with no commercial aspirations whatsoever or from someone who wants to make a name for themselves by making something that really stands out rather than someone who’s been dipping their toe in the mainstream and would seemingly want to ride that wave. However, I do think that this experience making a movie like that has helped rather than hindered his abilities hear as you can see a lot more formal talent in the film than you might expect from something this experimental. The resulting film is an interesting little exploration of the tropes of the haunting story and of the concept of legacy… just make sure you go in with some patience.