All of us wonder at one point or another in our lives what lies beyond this mortal coil, but probably none of us ever imagine that we’ll actually wander around in a white sheet staring out at the world of the living through two jagged eyeholes. That’s what happens to Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story, director David Lowery’s mournful, eerie, and sometimes funny meditation on life, loss, and death. Here he also reunites with Affleck and Rooney Mara–the lovers from his second feature as a director, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints–in an equally slow-burning, yet much stranger, concoction.
Affleck and Mara play a couple who live in a small, slightly ramshackle one-story house on a flat plot of land somewhere in Texas. We never even find out their names (Affleck’s character is listed as “C” in the credits while Mara’s is “M”), but we do get a few tantalizing pieces of their life together: C is a musician, and they seem to enjoy a relatively blissful existence, even though there are tensions under the surface about future plans, including moving.
All that is rendered moot, however, when C is killed in a car accident right outside the house. And after M identifies his body in the morgue, he rises from the table–with the sheet still draped over him, only with those two eyeholes now opened in it–and finds his way back to their house, where he silently and passively observes M going through the stages of grief and eventually moving on with her life. After M leaves the house and Texas behind, C remains under his sheet while time marches forward, with others moving in and out of the house and the property itself changing radically. C, or more properly his ghost, remains impassive through it all, even when he begins to travel backward and forward in time.
Lowery, who I still can’t believe is the same director who helmed the much more conventional Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon last year, stages all this with long, still shots and quick, hard edits, indicating both the stretching of individual moments and the terrifying way in which time can sneak up and race past us. There are long passages of near-silence, including one memorable, almost squirm-inducing scene involving a pie, that are then broken by scenes in which the ghost seems to somehow get riled up enough emotionally to create noisy poltergeist-like activity in his former home. But he never speaks and the reason why he’s unable to leave the space is only obliquely addressed.
That’s sort of the point though: A Ghost Story is ultimately not about giving the viewer simple answers, despite Lowery’s austere direction and the equally minimalist performances of his two leads (we’re giving Affleck the benefit of the doubt that it’s him under the sheet the whole time). It instead acts as both a paean to the idea that every single moment is vital in its own way, as well as a caution to not let those moments slip away too quickly. We never really find out why the ghost stays behind, but the fact that he does lets us appreciate the vastness of time and how insignificant we all are in its vortex.
None of this is exactly new, and a lesser film could use this material to stumble into the truly obscure and pretentious, but Lowery ends up grounding it with, of all things, that silly white sheet. It makes C’s ghost somehow relatable and, ironically enough, just as human as he was in life, as if he was still among us and desperate to throw together a costume for a Halloween party. If the film’s simplicity occasionally clashes with the grandiosity of its ideas–such as the scene where a partygoer at the house (Will Oldham) waxes obnoxiously on how time eventually obliterates us and everything we leave behind in a rather jarring sort of exposition dump–Lowery makes up for it elsewhere with the elegance of his imagery.
A Ghost Story may not be for everyone–some viewers may find its pace and ambiguity maddening after a while too–but if you have the patience it’s a rewarding, frequently poignant film that evokes the loneliness of the human experience, and how important and fleeting our connections with others are. After all, each of us will be under that white sheet one day.
A Ghost Story is out in limited release now.