David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a film that is likely to draw wildly mixed reactions. I’ve seen reviewers who loved it and others who wanted to pull their hair out – and I can understand both responses. During the film’s first 30 minutes, it wasn’t particularly working much for me, but the picture eventually settles into a rhythm and, ultimately, there’s a fair amount to admire, even if not all of its pieces completely fit.
Yes, this is a movie in which Casey Affleck plays a husband who dies and then returns to the home where he and his wife (Rooney Mara) lived and spends the rest of the picture as a ghost wrapped in a sheet, observing how life goes on without him. But no clay is whittled and the Righteous Brothers are nowhere to be heard – in other words, this isn’t a Hollywood drama in which a heartbroken widow makes contact with her dead husband and all is set right.
A Ghost Story alternates between melancholy, creepiness and mind-expanding theories about time. There are some haunting moments when Affleck’s ghost wanders lonely through fields trying to make his way home or watching his wife pack up and drive away, only to be replaced by new tenants in the home where he once lived. It also features unsettling sequences when the ghost – always clad in that white sheet – paces back and forth through the house – and we have to remind ourselves that we’re not watching a horror movie.
Late in the film, a party is thrown in the house, where Will Oldham (Old Joy) expounds on the meaninglessness of life in a world where, one day, a masterpiece by Beethoven could be forgotten if human civilization crumbles. It’s a speech that is by turns fascinating and pretentious, but it sets the stage for a curious series of sequences during which Affleck’s ghost inexplicably witnesses how his home came to be constructed – from a scene involving settlers from many years past to the construction of a building in the future, where he is left to roam its halls. Then, time circles back again and he watches his own life with his wife pass by.
A Ghost Story is a film that requires some patience. Admittedly, I found mine tested during the film’s early scenes. I recently praised Twin Peaks for an absurdist sequence during which a guy endlessly swept a floor, which felt right for the moment in which it occurred. In Lowery’s film, there’s a scene in which Mara eats nearly an entire pie in real time while Affleck observes her that might send moviegoers running for the exits. Eventually, the film finds its rhythm, but it takes more time than it should.
Lowery is an up-and-coming filmmaker who jumps back and forth between low budget indies and studio films – his debut was Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a film also starring Affleck and Mara that I mostly liked, and the remake of Pete’s Dragon, which I missed. His third feature is daringly uncommercial and I can appreciate the abstract manner in which it ponders such themes as death and time.
It’s not quite the triumph that some have proclaimed it, but I also wouldn’t agree with its detractors. A Ghost Story is a curious item that initially frustrates, but ultimately absorbs, and could be a rewarding experience for those with a taste for the offbeat.