Let’s get this out of the way upfront: A Ghost Story is a weird little movie. It’s definitely an arthouse endeavor, and its bizarre premise will undoubtedly prove polarizing. But for those willing to roll with its bedsheet-ghost conceit, there’s a deeply moving film at the core of this minimalist exercise in pseudo-surrealism. My qualms with the film are (almost) entirely limited to its pacing, and if you hang with it long enough for things to pick up in the back stretch, you’ll have completely forgotten about the tempo issues. Whether or not you appreciate the direction A Ghost Story takes in its last act, I have no doubt that it’s something that will haunt you (pun intended) long after the credits roll.
The story, such as it is, follows a struggling musician (Casey Affleck) co-habiting with his significant other (Rooney Mara) in a run-down suburban house. We never learn their names, or the city they live in, or much about their relationship — and all of that would be superfluous anyway. What matters is that Affleck’s character dies halfway through the first act, and his restless spirit defiantly clings to Mara’s side until she moves on with her life, both literally and figuratively. There’s not much plot to spoil from there, but it would do the film a disservice to say more than that the spirit’s refusal to move on as well takes him on a journey that spans broad swaths of time and human experience while rooted firmly in one setting.
So while I can’t give the film an unequivocal recommendation for every reader, those who can get past its minor shortcomings will be rewarded with a work that is profoundly affecting and utterly unique. Yes, Affleck winds up under the aforementioned sheet about 15 minutes in and remains there for the majority of the film, and yes, Mara spends five uninterrupted minutes grief-gorging on pie — but a film’s emotional effect is sometimes more than the sum of its parts, and A Ghost Story pulls profundity from the preposterous.
Writer/director David Lowery has made what amounts to a modern silent film — I didn’t time it, but the entirety of the movie’s dialogue probably clocks in at less than five minutes — and the lo-fi approach belies a story that could be accurately described as grandiose in its scope. Lowery is dealing with some weighty philosophical and metaphysical issues, so there’s a wisdom to avoiding the clutter of unnecessary details like names or verbiage. Affleck and Mara carry the film with such graceful understatement that it’s conceivable they could read the phone book and make it compelling (if phone books were still a thing).
A Ghost Story is far from uplifting — the latter half takes a decidedly nihilistic turn and doesn’t pull back until the final frames — but it’s a thought-provoking piece of filmmaking that proves definitively that budgetary constraints don’t have to be seen as limitations. It’s certainly not a film that’s going to find mass-market appeal, but its very existence should restore some degree of faith in the capacity for original and challenging material to emerge from contemporary cinema. Who knew 90 minutes of a guy in a sheet with cut-out eyeholes could pull that off? Rated R for brief language and a disturbing image. Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse.