A Ghost Story Has a Ghost, But Maybe Not a Story

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Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story. Photo: A24

In the standard ghost story, the suspense hinges on whether or not there’s a ghost; in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, it’s on whether or not there’s a story. The ghost is presented with tongue-in-cheek literalness. He’s played by Casey Affleck in a white sheet with holes cut out for the eyes. After sitting up on the table at the morgue, Affleck’s character (“C”) drapes the sheet over himself and returns — somehow — to his small ranch-style house, where he will remain, more or less, for the duration of the film. He watches his grieving widow, “M” (Rooney Mara), as she struggles to go on and stays behind when she drives into the sunset. (She actually drives into a sunset.) Seasons pass, occupants change, skyscrapers rise. And still the ghost stands, wondering what he’s seeing, what it all means.

That we know he’s wondering anything under that sheet is a testament to Lowery, Affleck, and the composer, Daniel Hart, who makes every instrument as plaintive as a cello and as spooky as a theremin. Lowery has a goofy streak: In a nearby house, he plants another white-sheeted ghost, who shyly waves to C through the window, and the spooks communicate via subtitles. (The credits identify the person under the sheet as a pop star known to everyone except Jerry Seinfeld.) But Lowery’s intent is dead serious, so to speak. C is like a man — an artist — standing outside his own life, watching his family supplanted and then swept away by history and in the ocean of time. In one scene, there’s a hipster house party with a magician and the musician Will Oldham as a “prognosticator,” who has a long monologue about how we “build our legacy piece by piece … to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone … Your kids are all gonna die and their kids will die …” He eventually gets to the exploding universe and the end of all matter.

Your response to A Ghost Story might depend on your capacity to reconcile its arty ellipses with its high sentimentality quotient. It’s as if the vaporous Thai favorite Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives had been reconceived by the maestro of clunks, M. Night Shyamalan. When the timeline abruptly resets itself, the film enters on-the-nose eye-roll territory. It’s one thing for C to observe the westward expansion that brought whites to the place where his house will one day sit, another to see — an instant later — a colonial family sprawled on the ground with arrows sticking out of them. Another eye-roller is the long shot of M weeping and eating an entire pie with her hands while C gazes on helplessly. It’s the sort of test that serious actors feel they have to submit themselves to once in their careers and I’m glad Rooney Mara can now move on.

But even at its most self-conscious, there’s something lovable about A Ghost Story. Lowery’s boxlike frame deepens the poignancy, and he evokes the passing of days, months, or years with real lyricism. Above all, the image of Affleck under that sheet while the movie goes on around him is indelible. I suppose it could be anyone under there, but the ghost links up with Affeck’s lack of definition, that fog-person quality that Kenneth Lonergan showcased so beautifully in Manchester by the Sea. I could feel Affleck in the tilt of the body, the quizzical angle of the head, and the teardrop shape of the eyeholes. Yeah, I think he’s under there.

Review: A Ghost Story Has a Ghost, But Maybe Not a Story