Sometimes the most frightening ghost stories are about more than what goes bump in the night. Our sense of mortality, the anticipation of loss and the fear of fading into oblivion can often be just as scary. Director-writer David Lowery meticulously mines these fears for A Ghost Story, a tale that’s as beautiful as it is bleak and as conceptual as it is cosmic.
The film begins with married couple C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) as they prepare to move out of their ranch-style suburban home, though C’s not the most eager. Before he can express this further, he’s killed in a car accident right outside of his home. Soon after, C awakens on an autopsy table, the morgue sheet still clinging to his body. Now a ghost, C wanders aimlessly about, invisible to everyone he encounters. Eventually, he returns home, where he watches M’s life and many others’ play out before him.
The first and second halves of A Ghost Story feel very much like two separate chapters. Act one focuses on M as she copes with her grief. Mara as a bereaved wife is convincing, even with so little dialogue to work with. And the way she moves around Affleck like he’s a piece of furniture drives the tragedy of their situation home: They’re within arm’s reach, yet will never be close enough.
Lowery’s lingering camera work borders on exhaustive at times, but it’s also a device to pull the audience closer to C’s experience. One standout example is a five-minute scene in which M, in mourning, gorges herself on an entire pie in one take. It’s excruciating to watch, but the purpose is clear: We’re meant to feel as helpless as C does, standing mutely on the sidelines.
A Ghost Story’s second act recedes from M’s perspective to introduce the villain of the film: time and its baffling sense of gravity. What may seem like moments for C could very well be weeks, months or even decades, and those leaps happen dizzyingly fast. Though life carousels around C, he is stuck in place. This forces him to embark on an existential journey to face what he’s so desperately been trying to avoid: moving on. Flashbacks of M and C prior to the accident give the audience snapshots of how the couple loved and offers more understanding of why C is reluctant to let go. These moments feel organic, and watching a lively, and very mortal, C strengthens an interest in his seemingly doomed character. Will he or won’t he move on? And how?
The film addresses this in one of the most evocative and exasperating endings. Lowery doesn’t provide us with all of the answers, but he does deliver a memorable conclusion we can contemplate.