A Ghost Story
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
A man and a woman are in love. They talk and make plans and generally enjoy each other’s company. Then the man dies in a tragic accident. The woman must now figure out how to deal with her grief and keep going without him. Meanwhile, the man’s ghost (now underneath a white sheet with holes for his eyes) returns to the home they once shared and watches, unseen.
That is a brief summary of what happens in A Ghost Story. But a film is not about its story; it is about how it tells its story. The first paragraph of this review could describe a horror movie or a comedy or a romantic drama. A Ghost Story is none of those things. It is a meditation on life, death, love and grief. Its pace is very slow and thoughtful. The characters are not fully developed; we only see them in small moments. The film uses these two people to represent all of humanity (this is really a two character film and neither of those characters are ever named. They are referred to as C and M in the end credits). There is not much dialogue and the camera movements are subtle. The editing allows scenes to breathe. Some shots are held for long periods of time. Emotions are conveyed through the way people or objects are framed on the screen or the body language of the actors.
One of writer/director/editor David Lowery’s biggest assets is the face of lead actress Rooney Mara (who played the title character in 2012’s American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Despite rarely using her voice, she is able to express a world of feeling. Casey Affleck (a Best Actor Oscar winner this year for the excellent Manchester by the Sea), playing the male lead, is barely seen onscreen. He is under a sheet for the majority of the film, so his emotions must be inferred from his body movements. Both actors do exactly what has been required of them and deliver strong performances.
Lowery (who also directed Affleck and Mara in the very good 2013 contemporary western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is not using a traditional narrative here. Most of the story occurs internally. There are no “big” moments. His movie provokes thought by what it shows us, not what it tells us. The film is quite literally a ghost’s story, but the supernatural angle is just a way for Lowery to explore his themes; he never once uses it for thrills or scares. A Ghost Story is a perfect example of what people mean when they use the term “art film.”
I found A Ghost Story (87 minutes without the end credits) to be beautiful and moving. It explores its themes in a way I found fascinating. It inspired a lot of reflection as I sat in the quiet theater while it was playing, thinking about the ideas it explores. These are usually not the kinds of comments you see people make about a film they enjoy. That gives you an idea of what kind of movie this is.
A movie like A Ghost Story is not for everyone. Some will be enthralled by it. Some will be bored by it. Others will find its imagery and deliberate pacing laughable. At this point in this review, you probably know which category you are most likely to fall into.
A Ghost Story is a film that you have to be able to meet on its own wavelength and let it wash over you in order to enjoy. I was able to meet it on its level and found it to be one of the most enjoyable and creative films of the year. Your mileage may vary.
4½ out of 5
Rooney Mara as M
Casey Affleck as C
Written and directed by David Lowery